A person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mailbox in Omaha, Neb. Data on August 18, 2020.

A person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mailbox in Omaha, Neb. Data on August 18, 2020. AP file photo

Postal Service Settles Election Case, Agrees to Continue Prioritizing Ballots

USPS will continue steps it implemented for the 2020 election through at least 2028.

The U.S. Postal Service will continue taking “extraordinary measures” to ensure on-time delivery of mailed-in ballots under a recent settlement agreement between the agency and outside groups following protracted litigation.

The agreement ends a lawsuit brought by the NAACP and Public Citizen before the 2020 election, with the advocacy groups arguing USPS was not taking sufficient action to ensure timely delivery of election mail. The settlement, in addition to rulings that stemmed from a dozen other lawsuits the Postal Service faced before the election, led to an injunction on a series of actions management had instituted to cut costs and reform operations. 

In the final stretch before the 2020 election, USPS committed a slew of additional resources specifically aimed at moving ballots, including increased overtime, additional trips, expediting election mail for delivery and new processes each day to flag the specially marked mail. The mailing agency began conducting sweeps to check for political advertising mail, voter registration documents and absentee voting requests in January 2020, and sent postal inspectors to all processing plants that handle election mail beginning in late October.

As part of its settlement agreement, USPS will make a “good-faith effort” to set election plans through at least 2028 similar to those in place last year, though the parties agreed that statutory or regulatory changes may necessitate some adjustments. Management will “prioritize monitoring and timely delivery of election mail,” though the agency and the plaintiffs agreed it was premature to get into specifics. USPS will post all of its national guidance documents for election mail on its website for 2022, 2024, 2026 and 2028. 

Postal management will meet with the NAACP at least twice per election year and provide performance data in the run up to the election. The plaintiffs can file a motion before the same U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that heard the case if USPS violates any of the terms of the settlement. 

“The right to vote and ability to access the ballot is the cornerstone of our democracy,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said of the agreement. “The Department [of Justice] is pleased we could facilitate a resolution that reflects the commitment of all of the parties to appropriately handling and prioritizing election mail.” 

A series of lawsuits against USPS had led the court to require postal leadership to tell any employee previously informed of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s push to slash late and extra trips that the directive was no longer operative and USPS personnel should perform those trips “to the maximum extent necessary to increase on-time mail deliveries, particularly for election mail.” The lawsuits also led to a pause on longstanding efforts to decommission mail processing equipment and remove blue collection boxes.

The settlement formally dissolves the injunction. NAACP called the agreement “historic” and “unprecedented victory for civil rights.” 

“No one, including the USPS, should ever stand in the way of our constitutional rights,” said Derrick Johnson, the group’s president. “With the NAACP's ability to now monitor the performance of the USPS during national elections, we will ensure that the right to vote is protected for all citizens, including those often suppressed.”

The settlement made clear USPS did not admit to any wrongdoing, a stance it reiterated after the agreement was struck. Ultimately, the Postal Service was largely successful in ensuring on-time delivery of election mail last year.

“Consistent with the Postal Service’s steadfast commitment to fulfilling our vital role in the nation’s electoral process, we agreed to continue to prioritize monitoring and timely delivery of election mail for future elections,” said Thomas Marshall, USPS’ general counsel and executive vice president. “The Postal Service continues to believe that none of the election mail lawsuits were justified by the facts or supported by the applicable law. The Postal Service performed admirably in the 2020 general election and would have done so regardless of the litigation.”

Postal management repeatedly argued in court the postmaster general’s initiatives only led to mail delays because front-line workers misinterpreted their directives, though the employees themselves pushed back on that narrative. While DeJoy said USPS would quickly be able to recover from the setback and resume meeting its on-time delivery goals, it was not until well into 2021 that the Postal Service recovered from its performance dip. The Postal Service continued to fight the injunctions after the election concluded.