By Anthony Scarpiniti
In the age of Covid-19, social distancing, and staying at home, the “norms” of society are no longer normal. Because of the recent November election, many states adjusted or expanded their absentee and mail-in voting procedures. According to a Pew Research Center survey, approximately two-thirds of Americans support the ability to vote absentee or early without a specific reason. Even President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump requested mail-in ballots for the Florida Republican primary election in August.
While many Americans support absentee and mail-in voting in theory, in order for them to work in practice, the United States Postal Service (USPS) had to be prepared for the large influx of ballots. During the 2019 holiday season, the USPS sorted and delivered approximately “2.5 billion pieces of First-Class Mail,” and this was just in one week. This breaks down to about 500 million letters per day. The Census Bureau estimated that the voting age population in the United States was about 245.5 million citizens in 2016, and only about 157.6 million of them were registered to vote. Between the holiday season and a hypothetical election held completely via the mail, it is a fair assumption that the USPS is much busier during the holiday season.
The USPS relies on Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines to process large amounts of mail. These machines are able to sort through 36,000 pieces of mail per hour. Unfortunately, many of these machines have been removed from distribution centers; many more of the Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines are scheduled to be removed this year. In August 2020, several Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines were removed from the main post office in Chicago and the post office near O’Hare Airport.
Because of the removal of these machines, April Harrington, an Illinois resident, filed suit against Louis Dejoy (postmaster general of the USPS), Robert Duncan (chairman of the postal service board of directors), and the USPS. Harrington alleged that the defendants violated “her right to vote by unlawfully consolidating post offices.” Harrington claimed that by removing the Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines from distribution centers (which is a form of consolidating post offices) and not providing notice at least 60 days beforehand, the defendants violated 39 U.S.C. § 404.
April Harrington asked the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to enjoin the Defendants from removing any more Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines from USPS distribution centers and to compel the Defendants to replace the Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines that have already been removed from distribution centers. This case was filed on September 8, 2020, and assigned to the Honorable Marvin E. Aspen on September 9, 2020.
This case had interesting implications for the 2020 general election. If April Harrington had won the suit, many distribution centers would have been restored to before any Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines were dismantled. The USPS would likely be barred from implementing any other policies similar to the dismantling of the machines unless they followed through with giving notice of 60 days which was impossible before the November 3rd election. If the Defendants had won or if the court had dismissed the case, it is likely that more Delivery Bar Code Sorting machines would have been dismantled as planned and the machines already dismantled would have remained dismantled. Neither outcomeultimately occurred by election day for this case. The Eastern District of Washington enjoined DeJoy and the USPS from making changes before the election. This occurred in an order on September 17, 2020.
Mail-in ballots ultimately played a large role in the 2020 election. While exact numbers have not yet been calculated, over sixty-two million absentee ballots were returned as of November 2, 2020. Over 91.9 million absentee ballots were requested. On election night, President Trump appeared to be leading in the ballot counting, but once main-in ballots were counted, Vice President Biden took the lead in key states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia. After several days of counting, Vice President Biden won these states, securing his electoral victory. The USPS proved successful in delivering many ballots, but they were not perfect. Over one hundred fifty thousand ballots were undelivered and were still being processed on election day. So long as these ballots were postmarked by election day and delivered by Friday, November 6, they were still counted in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and North Carolina. Ballots are not accepted after Election Day in Georgia or Arizona. Because of this, some ballots were not counted; whether this was the fault of the voters or the USPS, or both, is undetermined. Looking towards the future, hopefully widespread absentee ballot procedures can be normalized to facilitate more effective delivery and enfranchisement.