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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan may sue feds over postal service delays, absentee ballot concerns

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is exploring ways to sue the federal government over United States Postal Service delays that some say could impact the November election. 

“It’s safer to vote from home and it’s every American’s right and responsibility to exercise that right of voting,” the Democratic governor told MSNBC on Sunday evening. “So we’re going to do everything we can to protect that right and ensure that every ballot gets counted.”

The threat is the latest in a political fight over new cost-cutting rules from U.S. Postmaster Louis DeJoy. 

Democrats, who seek $3.5 billion more for the Postal Service as part of a COVID-19 relief package, accuse the Trump administration of slowing mail to give the Republican president an advantage in the November election. Trump opposes the increase and claimed last week that Democrats want a bailout “in order to have the Post Office work so it can take all of the millions and millions of ballots.”

Whitmer’s comments followed Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary election, when 6,405 mail-in ballots weren’t counted because they reached clerks after Election Day. USPS warned Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson late last month there was a “significant risk” the service won’t be able to deliver ballots to or from voters in time under state deadlines. 

Postal delays have been reported in several swing states, including Michigan, after a new delivery policy was implemented in July to cut costs. Union officials also have accused postal service officials of removing mail sorting machines in Pontiac and Detroit.

The changes are sparking concerns as the state increasingly turns to absentee voting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. A record 1.6 million Michiganders voted by mail in the August election, beating out the former record of 1.27 million in the November 2016 election. 

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokesperson for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, told Bridge the administration is in discussion with other states about a multi-state lawsuit to “ensure that the U.S. Postal Service is aggressive in its efforts to ensure that absentee ballots are delivered to local clerks offices in time to be counted.”

Rossman-McKinney declined to say what legal strategy the state would pursue to challenge the federal government on the issue, but “my guess would be any and all,” she said.

“The concerns are that serious. This election is of deep concern to both parties — the action that Michigan’s taking is not a partisan action,” Rossman-McKinney said, adding that further details on the potential lawsuit are expected later this week.

While clerks and others are reporting increased postal delays following the July policy change, an internal review from the Postal Service indicated postal districts in Michigan failed to reach delivery goals from April 1 and June 30. 

The Detroit postal district had the second-worst on-time scores in the country, and the scores for the district covering northern and west Michigan also lagged behind other states. 

While state elections officials and the USPS say election-related mail is prioritized and shouldn’t be affected by mail delays, local clerks reported significant delays in ballots reaching voters before the August election. 

In Michigan, mail-in ballots are only counted if they reach the clerk by Election Day, rather than if they are postmarked by Election Day such as in some other states. Benson’s office reported last week that more than 6,000 ballots were rejected because they reached clerks too late.

She called upon the Legislature to pass legislation that would allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to count. 

“With turnout and absentee ballot numbers expected to double or even triple in November, we could be looking at tens of thousands of Michigan citizens disenfranchised if the legislature again fails to act,” Benson said in a statement Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told WKHM radio in Jackson last week that he shares Benson’s concerns over mailing delays.  

“There’s a chronic problem across our nation in the Postal Service,” Shirkey said. “There are people now who refuse to mail things because they fear it getting lost or a delay in delivery and that’s a problem that the federal government needs to address promptly.”

Shirkey said he doesn’t think they’ve found a fix that “maintains the integrity of the process, but that’s something we can work on together.”

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