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Florida healthcare union sues Postal Service over mail ballots

The lawsuit, by 1199SEIU, the Florida chapter of the United Healthcare Workers, asks the court to order the U.S. Postal Service to disclose information about whether it is complying with its obligations.

TALLAHASSEE — The union representing Florida healthcare workers on Tuesday filed a lawsuit this week against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy asking a court to order him to reverse actions that it claims will delay the delivery of vote-by-mail ballots and disenfranchise Florida voters.

The lawsuit, by 1199SEIU, the Florida chapter of the United Healthcare Workers, was filed Tuesday in federal district court in Miami. It asks the court to order the U.S. Postal Service to disclose information about whether it is complying with its obligations under the law and following recent court orders issued in other states.

For example, the union wants the agency to show that it is processing ballots whether or not the mail has the correct postage, as the courts have required, to describe the process by which it will expedite the delivery of ballots to voters and back to elections offices, and whether DeJoy has restored the sorting machines that were decommissioned this summer and caused delays in mail delivery.

"A common concern I hear from voters I talk to every day is: ‘I don’t trust the mail,’ " said Dale Ewart, executive vice president of 1199SEIU’s Florida chapter. “People have to have trust in the mail and trust in the voting process. We’re running out of time here. We need to have answers.”

Several federal courts have ordered the Postal Service to postpone changes ordered by DeJoy until after the election “because those changes threatened to disenfranchise large numbers of voters,” said Jonathan Manes, attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents 1199SEIU in the lawsuit.

"This lawsuit will make sure that the Postal Service complies with these court orders in Florida and will allow 1199SEIU to keep tabs on whether the Postal Service is actually meeting its delivery standards and its special obligation to make sure ballots get delivered in time to be counted,'' he said.

Postal Service says adjustments have been made

Carol Hunt, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service would not comment on the lawsuit but said the agency’s top priority is “securely and timely delivering all ballots pursuant to our long-established processes and procedures.”

She said DeJoy this week authorized additional resources “to satisfy any demand and to ensure that all Election Mail is prioritized and delivered securely and on time.” The additional resources include “expanded processing procedures, extra transportation, extra delivery and collection trips, and overtime to ensure that Election Mail reaches its intended destination in a timely manner.”

The lawsuit alleges that as a result of DeJoy’s actions this summer, more sorting machines have been removed in Florida than any other state except California, causing “a substantial and potentially irreversible decline in the time necessary to deliver First-Class mail.”

The union argues that because millions of Americans are choosing to vote by mail rather than in person to avoid the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the Postal Service will serve an elevated role this election season and healthcare workers are among the millions who “will choose to vote by mail in order to protect themselves and their coworkers, patients, and the broader community.”

Florida voters have already begun sending in their mail-in ballots as the Florida Division of Elections reports 700,000 ballots have been returned as of Tuesday morning, out of 4.7 million ballots that have been mailed out.

DeSantis says it’s OK to rely on USPS

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday at a news conference in The Villages that voters should have confidence in Florida’s vote-by-mail system and acknowledged that the pandemic has led to more mail-in voting than in the past but dismissed claims, which have often come from the president, that the system is designed to incubate fraud.

"We do the vote by mail for a reason — because it is convenient for people,'' he said. “We’ve got a lot of folks who split time between Florida and other places. And then now, with coronavirus, I personally think going into a polling place is totally safe but some may not feel comfortable they can do it. And that’s why it [vote by mail] is there. It’s not for people to try to game the system.”

Florida is one of 30 states that disqualifies any ballot received by the state after polls close on Election Day, even if the voters have complied with all deadlines and followed all instructions (exceptions are made for ballots being mailed from overseas). The union alleges that because of DeJoy’s actions, “tens of thousands of citizens of Florida will be disenfranchised.”

By law, election mail is supposed to be given special status in an election year, and ballots are supposed to be delivered and expedited regardless of whether they have the correct postage.

The plaintiffs cite a settlement agreement reached earlier this year between the Florida Department of State and the Dream Defenders, Nielsen v. DeSantis, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, in which the state agreed to instruct supervisors of elections that if voters can’t afford postage for their mail-in ballots, the Postal Service must deliver it, anyway.

The agreement also required the state to encourage election officials to maximize the use of drop boxes to collect mail-in ballots, as an alternative to sending them through the Postal Service.

But in a July 29 letter from the Postal Service to Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, Thomas Marshall, the general counsel for the Postal Service, said that election mail will be treated no differently than other mail.

"While the specific transit times for either class of mail cannot be guaranteed, and depend on factors such as a given mailpiece’s place of origin and destination, most domestic First-Class Mail is delivered 2-5 days after it is received by the Postal Service, and most domestic Marketing Mail is delivered 3-10 days after it is received,'' he wrote.

Ewart said that if it appears that DeJoy’s actions have led to delays that could thwart the ability of ballots to get to elections offices by the Nov. 3 deadline, 1199SEIU is “not closing down the possibility of expanding the lawsuit to an action against the state.”

"We are hoping first to address the problems with the Postal Service and ensure it is doing what it can to make sure ballots are delivered on a timely basis,'' he said.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

Voter guide is coming soon: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18 with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide beginning Sunday, Oct. 11.

AMENDMENTS: State constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot, explained.

FELONY CONVICTION? Here are Florida’s rules for registering to vote.

MAIL-IN BALLOTS: So you want to vote by mail in Florida? Here’s what you need to know.

POSTAL SERVICE CONCERNS: What’s going on with the U.S. Postal Service and should Florida be worried?

HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT VOTING IN FLORIDA? WE HAVE THE ANSWERS: We’ve compiled information on voter registration deadlines, rules for voting by mail and more.

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