OLYMPIA — The head of the U.S. Postal Service put the brakes on controversial changes in mail delivery service Tuesday amid intensifying political heat and mounting legal challenges, including one filed by the state’s attorney general.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said he is “suspending” initiatives to reduce office hours, close processing centers, remove blue collection boxes and limit overtime until after Nov. 3 “to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.”
Critics contend those moves — some of which have occurred in Washington and other states — will slow delivery of medications, Social Security benefits and other vital mail, and potentially disrupt conduct of the general election when states, in response to the pandemic, will be relying more heavily on mail-in voting.
In Washington, legislative and congressional Democrats, and the governor argue DeJoy is pushing the agenda of President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly made baseless claims of widespread fraud in elections conducted with all-mail voting.
DeJoy’s decision came as state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a 120-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eastern District in Yakima alleging the Postmaster general and Trump Administration failed to follow federal law before initiating the changes. Thirteen states including Oregon and Colorado had signed on to the action, Ferguson said.
Under federal law, the Postal Service must follow a certain process before altering service, including a review by the Postal Regulatory Commission and a public comment period.
DeJoy didn’t do that, Ferguson told reporters in a joint news conference with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Shapiro filed a separate suit with similar allegations.
“What’s going on right now is nothing less than a full-on assault by this administration on the U.S. Postal Service, an institution that millions of Americans rely on every single day,” Ferguson said.
When told of DeJoy’s announcement, Ferguson and Shapiro each said they would continue pursuing their legal claims until it is clear that no revisions in operations will occur unless and until the law is followed.
“Zero chance we take our foot off the gas, we want that in writing and confirmed, before we delay or stop what we’re doing,” Ferguson said.
As the legal fight begins, the political fight in Congress is well under way.
Majority Democrats in the House of Representatives are poised to pass a measure this weekend to shore up funding for the postal service and reverse actions already taken that they contend could hamper states’ ability to run elections
On Tuesday, Democratic U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene decried DeJoy’s actions at an afternoon news conference held on a street corner outside an Everett post office.
Larsen called the decision to halt changes until after the election a “necessary but insufficient step.”
“He didn’t announce he is reversing any of the changes,” Larsen said. “There are still postal offices around the country that machines have been taken out and dismantled, there are still mail boxes around the country that are stacked up in storage yards.”
There are plans to remove 15 mail sorting machines from around the state, DelBene said.
“We want to make sure they haven’t just stopped, but put things back to the way they were,” she said. “So we get back to the service levels that existed on Jan. 1, not yesterday.”
Both hope to pass the bill Saturday.
“We have a little bit of work to do this weekend,” Larsen said.
Jason Behrens, who is president of the Cascade Area Local Postal Workers Union, joined the lawmakers on the corner of Hoyt and Pacific avenues. Semi-trucks driving past drowned out the conversation at times as a crosswalk signal beeped in the background.
Behrens began to work for the Postal Service 22 years ago, soon after he left the Army. Nearly all of that time has been spent at the Hardeson Road post office in South Everett.
“I started here when I was a kid,” he said. “It’s all I know.”
Behrens said the proposed changes have negatively affected moods of the workers.
“From the people I’ve spoken with and the people I represent, to see these changes issued from the top has kind of hurt morale,” he said.
Meanwhile, state and local election officials are confident the postal service will be fully up to the task this fall.
County auditors met with postal officials a couple weeks ago.
“They confirmed our local postal operations are ready” for the increased activity of the general election, said Snohomish County Auditor Garth Fell. “I am comfortable with our local situation.”
Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, called DeJoy’s action “a good step.”
“It makes me very happy that the Postmaster general is walking it back and hope they walk back some of the changes we had heard they were going to make in Yakima, Wenatchee and Tacoma,” she said, referring to the potential closure of mail processing centers in those communities.
She and Fell said they did not expect significant delays or interruptions in ballot delivery and return services.
Washington, which has been voting by mail for years, sends ballots out 18 days before Election Day. The postal service recommends voters mail completed ballots a week before Election Day which this year is Nov. 3.
Ballots, which carry prepaid postage, will be counted in Washington as long as they are postmarked on or before Nov. 3.
An alternative is voters can use designated drop boxes. Once ballots are mailed in October, drop boxes will be open around the clock right up until 8 p.m. on the day of the election. There are 30 drop boxes in Snohomish County and roughly 450 around the state.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.