A federal judge on Dec.24 approved of a deal struck between the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and civil rights groups that would treat absentee ballots as express mail ahead of Georgia’s critical runoff election on Jan. 5.
The organization agreed to treat ballots as express mail if they were still in a processing plant in the three days before the election, according to the court documents (pdf).
This means that mail-in ballots would be delivered the next day. Additionally, ballots being sent from a New York printer to the state would be fast-tracked, and Georgia postal facilities will regularly sweep for undelivered ballots until the Jan. 5 election to ensure no ballots are misplaced.
In Atlanta, the USPS agreed to skip the processing plants and directly send the ballots to the Georgia Board of Elections (BOE). For days on which the Postal Service is not operating or the BOE is not open, ballots will be delivered the next day that both the Postal Service and the BOE are open.
Atlanta has recorded some of the worst mail service in the South. According to The Washington Post, only 80.4 percent of the over 150,000 mail ballots in Atlanta that have been processed were delivered on time, although there are claims that rate could be closer to 97 percent.
The agreement on ballot processing is a result of challenges from groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Vote Forward and marks a significant step for the Postal Service and its Justice Department lawyers in a case that began in August.
The parties submitted the agreement to the court late Wednesday in an effort to “avoid the cost and burden of further litigation between now and the Georgia Runoff Elections.”
“Every ballot must be counted, and this agreement with the USPS is a significant step in ensuring that the mail-in voting process for the Georgia runoff election will ensure the timely delivery of ballots,” Sam Spital, the Legal Defense Fund’s litigation director, said in a statement.
“The agreement provides for the prioritization of ballot delivery, the timely resolution of any delays in the delivery system, and transparency into the USPS process for ensuring that no voters are disenfranchised.”
The agreement also comes at one of the busiest times of the year for the U.S. Postal Service, which has been scrutinized after reports that it would struggle to deliver a historic volume of packages ahead of Christmas.
The agency said delays are due to an employee shortage due to the coronavirus pandemic. Around 19,000 of the agency’s 644,000 workers are sick or in isolation due to COVID-19. The agency is also being affected by capacity challenges with airlines and trucking, which are responsible for transporting the mail.
More than 2 million mail-in ballots have been requested for the Georgia runoff elections, according to the U.S. Elections Project, of which 721,752 have already been returned and accepted.
The Georgia runoff elections will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, as Republican incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue face off against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively.