USPS, ready for 2022 midterm elections, dinged by federal judge for 2020 shortcomings

A federal judge ruled that USPS policy changes, including a decision to limit late and extra truck trips between mail processing plants and post offices, were t...

The Postal Service is gearing up to deliver election mail and ballots ahead of November’s midterm elections – a task its independent watchdog office says the agency is well-equipped to handle this fall.

The USPS inspector general’s office, in a Sept. 26 report, found USPS processed nearly 10 million more pieces of election mail pieces during this year’s primary season, which runs from April 1 to June 30.

The USPS OIG also found that USPS  delivered election mail more quickly this year than it did for the same period in 2020, “even with the significant increase” in volume.

USPS, according to the IG report, delivered 97.6% of primary election mail on time, a 1% increase compared to levels seen in 2020.

“We found that generally, the Postal Service is ready for timely processing of election mail for the 2022 mid-term election,” the USPS OIG report states.

Meanwhile, a federal judge last week ruled that USPS policy changes, including a decision by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to limit late and extra truck trips between mail processing plants and post office, were the “primary factor” that reduced mail service ahead of the 2020 election.

“There was a meaningful drop in service performance immediately following the implementation of the postal policy changes,” U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote in his Oct. 6 opinion.  “In particular, the changes to and impacts on the USPS transportation schedule contributed to the decline in on-time delivery rates in July.”

Sullivan said USPS data shows service scores, following the implementation of these contested operational changes, had not fully rebounded by October 2020. He added that USPS executives were aware of the connection between a decrease in service performance and efforts to reduce late and extra trips nationwide.

“Although the simultaneous implementation of multiple policy changes in June and July 2020 contributed to the decline in mail service and the overall confusion by postal workers, the record evidence demonstrates that changes to and impacts on the USPS transportation schedule regarding late and extra trips were the primary factor in affecting service on a nationwide or substantially nationwide basis,” Sullivan wrote.

The court’s ruling, in a case filed by the state governments of New York, Hawaii, New Jersey and the cities of New York and San Francisco, wrapped up one of the last remaining federal lawsuits USPS faced over its preparations and readiness for 2020 election mail and mail-in ballots.

USPS, at one point, faced more than a dozen lawsuits over its heightened role in the 2020 election, although USPS executives have pointed to the agency’s well-established practices and “extraordinary measures” it takes to deliver election mail on time and faster than first-class mail.

USPS, in the recent settlement of other election mail lawsuits, has agreed to maintain its extraordinary measures to deliver mail-in ballots to voters and election boards on time for federal elections through at least 2028.

The agency in July also announced the creation of a permanent Election and Government Mail Services division, rather than establishing an ad hoc team handling ahead of every election season, as it had in the past

USPS says it delivered 99.89% of ballots in 2020 to election officials within seven days, its minimum mailing time recommendation to voters, and that 97.9% of ballots arrived within three days. On average, it took 1.6 days for ballots to arrive at election boards.

In 2021, USPS delivered 99.95% of ballots to election officials within seven days, and 99.31% of ballots arrived within three days. On average, returning ballots were delivered to election boards within 1.4 days.

USPS spokeswoman Marti Johnson said USPS is “highly focused on fulfilling our critical role as part of the country’s electoral system where election officials or voters choose to utilize us as a part of their process.”

“Any suggestion that the Postal Service or anyone in Postal Service leadership, up to and including the Postmaster General, at any point in time was not fully committed to supporting our democratic process is inconsistent with the facts and our performance in 2020 and 2021,” Johnson said.

The court also determined that USPS violated the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act when it failed to submit a proposal to its regulator, the Postal Regulatory Commission, prior to implementing changes that reduced national service standards.

USPS argued in its lawsuits that it never sought a “firm limit” on reducing late and extra trips, and that seeking to reduce them never amounted to an official policy change that required prior approval from the PRC.

Sullivan, however, said that message trickled down to several USPS that all late and extra trips were unauthorized, and that at least one Area Vice President issued a “mandatory stand-up talk” directing that late trips and extra trips “are no longer authorized and accepted.”

“Even if the official policy was never to ‘ban’ such trips, the ‘focus’ was to eliminate them,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan rejected USPS’s arguments that it was not “foreseeable” how the simultaneous implementation of multiple policy changes during the height of the pandemic would negatively impact service.

The judge also ruled that there is no evidence that USPS analyzed the impacts its changes would have on overall service standards prior to implementing multiple changes at the same time.

The court also determined that USPS removing mail-sorting equipment at its plants nationwide had a “meaningful impact on service.”

USPS plans to remove mail-sorting equipment predate DeJoy’s tenure, but the pace of their removal accelerated in 2020.

In the fiscal year 2020, USPS removed 711 high-speed sorting machines —600 of which were announced on June 17, 2020 — about a 14.7% reduction in the number of machines nationwide.

USPS told the court that between 2017 and April 2020, it created and ran a computer model “to determine the optimum number of machines required for efficient mail processing at facilities across the nation and monitored the reductions on an ongoing basis.

The agency told the court that this analysis in May 2020 determined that USPS “needed fewer letter and flat sorting machines and more package machines and/or more workroom floor space for nonautomated package processing” so that the agency could operate more efficiently.

USPS explained that “removing unnecessary machines frees up space for other package-processing machines, which may be staffed with employees who are no longer needed for running additional letter or flat mail sorting machines,” and the greater floor space would allow for the surge of packages USPS delivered during the height of nationwide lockdowns.

USPS also argued that COVID-19 took a significant toll on its workforce and that critical shortages of health workers at times led to disruptions in on-time delivery.

“The Court does not disagree with Defendants that USPS service scores could have been negatively impacted by multiple sources,”  Sullivan wrote. However, the possibility that other events may have also contributed to any delays in mail delivery does not suggest that the postal policy changes had no impact.”

Sullivan, in his ruling, is preventing USPS from limiting late and extra trips to such a degree that it would reduce nationwide service scores on average by more than 10% for a period of at least two weeks — unless it gets prior permission from the PRC.

Johnson said USPS is studying the opinion to determine its next steps.

“We continue to believe that the lawsuit was not justified under the facts or supported by the applicable law,” she added.

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