A federal judge ordered the Postal Service on Thursday to continue its sweep of mail facilities to check for undelivered ballots in states that have extended vote delivery deadlines, such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of Washington, D.C., ordered the sweeps to continue until the end of the day Friday to ensure that all the mailed ballots are counted. The order, the result of a lawsuit brought by voter advocacy groups, is intended to mitigate concerns that a number of ballots in the Postal Service's care potentially were not delivered.
Concern was raised Wednesday about ballots that were scanned into the Postal Service system but did not get outgoing scans. The agency said that in an attempt to deliver the ballots more quickly, it bypassed the outgoing delivery scan in some cases.
Mail employees would often pull the ballots from being processed so they could deliver them directly to boards of elections.
"When this occurs, by design, these ballots bypass certain processing operations and do not receive a final scan," a Postal Service spokesperson said Wednesday. "Instead, they are expedited directly to the boards of elections. We remain in close contact with state and local boards of elections, and we do not currently have any open issues."
Because it pursued this policy, the Postal Service ended up "making its numbers look bad," Kevin Bray, the agency's top executive overseeing election mail, said Thursday during a hearing with Sullivan.
But that did not stop people from panicking.
In the hours after the election, a number of people on social media highlighted that about 300,000 ballots were not scanned as having been delivered, according to Postal Service data. The number has decreased by tens of thousands as the agency has tracked down the ballot deliveries. Voter advocacy groups, postal employees and the agency have all emphasized that those ballots were likely to have been delivered.
Shankar Duraiswamy, an attorney for Vote Forward, an advocacy group that is part of the suit, said in a telephone interview that advocates had not discovered any nondelivered ballots that would not be counted.
He said during the hearing Thursday that the group wants to ensure that the Postal Service accounts for all of the ballots that can still be delivered. Pressure is on states like Pennsylvania, where the Trump campaign is trying to stop the continued counting of ballots after Election Day, Duraiswamy said.
"There's obviously ongoing litigation about that, and there's ongoing disputes about the validity of that deadline," he said during the hearing. "And I think it's important to underscore the need for continued monitoring and continued attention to timely ballot delivery by the Postal Service in order to ensure that we don't have voters disenfranchised."
Sullivan's order fulfills voter advocacy groups' plans, which Duraiswamy said were to press for the Postal Service to continue its sweeps for mail ballots until each state's deadline passes.
Sullivan ordered a sweep of Texas' mail facilities for any undelivered ballots Wednesday. The searches turned up 815 ballots, which were delivered to local boards of election.
That adds to 13 undelivered ballots found in Pennsylvania and three found in North Carolina at this point — a far cry from the 300,000 feared to have gone missing.
Ballots are also likely to have been delayed because voters put their ballots in the mail late, even though voter advocates and the Postal Service warned them to mail their ballots within a week of their states' deadlines. Attorneys for the voter advocacy groups noted that during Thursday's hearing when referring to the approximately 150,000 ballots that were delivered Wednesday
But as the nation continues to wait for the results in several states, the weight of each uncounted ballot seems heavier and heavier.
There is "need for continued relief and for continued attention to issues regarding delivery of mail ballots, at least in those states where continued delivery of those ballots will allow them to be counted," Duraiswamy said.