USPS sends voters in numerous states “false” and “misleading” information about mail-in voting

"The notice, if distributed, will sow confusion amongst voters," a judge said after thousands were already mailed

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published September 15, 2020 1:12PM (EDT)

Stacks of boxes mail are seen at the U.S. Post Office  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Stacks of boxes mail are seen at the U.S. Post Office (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) sent voters in numerous states "false" and "misleading" ballot information as voting by mail gets underway. 

A federal judge on Saturday ordered the USPS to immediately stop sending "patently false" mailers to Colorado residents.

The mailers told voters that they must request a ballot 15 days ahead of the election; mail it back at least seven days before Election Day; and may not be able to vote if they lose it. However, Colorado automatically sends a ballot to all registered voters, and there are other options beyond returning the ballots by mail.

The mailers prompted a lawsuit from Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who said the USPS "refused" to delay or avoid sending them. U.S. District Court Judge William Martínez on Saturday granted Griswold's request for a temporary restraining order.

"In reality, Colorado voters do not need to request a ballot at any time. Voters who receive a ballot do not need to mail the ballot back at least seven days before the election; they may alternatively deposit that ballot at a drop-box or may choose to vote in person up to and including on Election Day," Martinez said. "The notice, if distributed, will sow confusion amongst voters by delivering a contradictory message."

The USPS disputed the state of Colorado's argument in a court filing. The agency asked Martinez to reverse the ruling, but most of the mailers have been delivered, Reuters reported. 

"Even if the court views the postcard as having the potential to confuse voters, the postcards do not make false representations about Colorado law," the filing said. "They do not even describe state law. Rather, they alert voters that state rules vary, refer them to local election officials and provide links that make it easier for voters to locate their state's rules."

"The intention of the mailer was to send a single set of recommendations that provided general guidance allowing voters who choose mail-in voting to do so successfully, regardless of where they live and where they vote," USPS spokeswoman Martha Johnson told Reuters.

But election officials in the states of California, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Hawaii — all of which also mail ballots to every registered voter — also said they may sue the USPS over the mailers. 

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, said her office was not informed of the mailers before they were sent out, adding that voters do not need to request a ballot.

On Monday, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, also a Republican, joined election officials concerned over the mailer after the state passed a bill to mail ballots to all registered voters amid the pandemic.

"The secretary of state's office was not made aware of the USPS postcard prior to it being mailed, nor was the office asked to provide input regarding the recommendations listed on the postcard," she said in a statement.

Cegavske added that the mailer was "not accurate for Nevada voters," including a part which said voters must add postage to the return envelope.

Linda Lamone, the elections administrator in Maryland, said she also asked the USPS to stop sending the mailers, telling local officials that she was "infuriated" by the mailers. The Maryland Board of Elections issued a statement urging voters to ignore the mailers: Ballot requests may be mailed until Oct. 15, and postage is prepaid.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told Reuters he was "deeply concerned" that the mailers would lead to confusion.

"State and local elections officials have had to spend a significant amount of time correcting election misinformation and disinformation," he said. "This USPS postcard, without input from elections officials, does not help."

Though the officials did not accuse the USPS of intentionally misleading voters — and Griswold acknowledged the effort "may have started off as well-intentioned" — the concerns come as lawmakers express worries that changes made by recently-installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy could impact the expected surge of mail ballots this fall.

The New York Times reported last week that the agency was working to reassure voters and officials that it was "prepared to handle an expected surge in voting by mail as a result of the pandemic" amid "suggestions that they are trying to help President Trump win re-election by sabotaging mail-in voting."

The effort comes after the USPS sent letters to 46 states warning that some mail-in ballots may not be counted, because "certain deadlines for requesting and casting mail-in ballots are incongruous with the Postal Service's delivery standards."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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