U.S. Postal Service warns that Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot laws could cause some votes not to be counted

The United States Postal Service warned Pennsylvania in July that its “delivery standards” won’t meet the state’s strict deadlines for requesting and returning mail-in ballots, according to a letter included in a Thursday court filing. As a result, the USPS warned, there’s a risk that ballots requested near the deadline in one of the nation’s most contested states won’t be returned in time to be counted. 

Under current Pennsylvania law, voters can request a mail-in ballot as late as seven days before the election. Counties can’t count ballots received after Election Day. 

In a July 29 letter to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, the Postal Service’s general counsel and executive vice president Thomas Marshall warned that the “mismatch” between Pennsylvania’s laws and the delivery capabilities of the mail system “creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them.” 

Even first class mail takes two to five days to be delivered, Marshall wrote.

The letter, which was included in a Thursday filing by the Pennsylvania State Department in the Commonwealth’s highest court, recommended that voters submit ballot requests at least 15 days before election time, “and preferably long before that time.” 

The State Department’s filing asked the state Supreme Court to allow mail-in ballots to be counted if they’re received by counties up to three days after the election so long as they were postmarked by Election Day. It was a concession to the plaintiffs, a handful of voters and the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans, who had sued in April for the state to allow mail-in votes received a full week after the election to be counted if postmarked by November 3.  

The filing, which withdrew the state’s objections that the request was “speculative,” said that the State Department had previously been made “aware of isolated issues in certain counties.” But “Prior to Mr. Marshall’s letter, the Postal Service had not indicated the likelihood of widespread, continuing, multiple-day mail-delivery delays presenting an overwhelming, statewide risk of disenfranchisement for significant numbers of voters utilizing mail-in ballots,” the department said. 

The State Department had previously fought against allowing ballots received after Election Day to be counted, although Governor Tom Wolf gave six of the state’s most populous counties an extension with an executive order. In late July, Wolf announced the state would pay for prepaid postage for all mail-in ballots, meeting a request that had been made by plaintiffs in the same lawsuit. 

But the request to allow counties to count ballots received after Election Day also underscores the likelihood that counties in the state will still be counting ballots days after Election Day, as they were in the June 2 primary. 

The progressive PAC Priorities USA had backed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. The committee’s chairman, Guy Cecil, praised the State Department’s change of heart in a statement. “This decision is an important step in addressing the mounting barriers to voting that Americans are navigating as a result of deliberate voter suppression,” he said. 

The Pennsylvania State Department and the U.S. Postal Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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