Law360 (September 11, 2020, 10:08 PM EDT) -- The Trump administration urged a D.C. federal judge Friday not to block operational changes to the U.S. Postal Service that a coalition of states claim threaten election mail, arguing that staffing shortages are due to the COVID-19 pandemic and equipment and overtime changes were routine.
In June and July, the postal service implemented several operation changes, including removing mail-sorting equipment and eliminating overtime, according to a suit lodged in late August by several states and cities, including New York and Hawaii. Last week, the states and cities filed an injunction motion aimed at quickly reversing the operational changes, which they say have slowed delivery and threaten to leave mail-in ballots uncounted.
New York Attorney General Letitia James has said the changes are clearly aimed at voter suppression in an election at a time when mail-in voting is expected to rise sharply as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The suit was filed against Trump, the USPS and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.
But Trump, DeJoy and the USPS said Friday that its removal of equipment was a standard "reduction in redundant processing equipment and collection boxes" that has no ties to the upcoming election. For years, the postal service has regularly reduced or reallocated collection boxes and equipment, they said in an opposition brief.
"Just as it has in past elections, the USPS has taken, and will continue to take, a number efforts to ensure that ballots move quickly and efficiently through the mail," they said.
Those steps include encouraging voters to mail in their ballots as early as possible, tracking and moving the ballots as quickly as possible, and asking state officials to appropriately identify and mark ballots, according to the filing.
"Nothing has changed in USPS's approach to election mail from past years, except that the postal service has put in place even more processes to monitor and move these ballots in response to the major increase in election mail volume caused by the COVID pandemic," the Trump administration said.
The administration also said it hasn't banned or unreasonably restricted overtime. The postal service's customary overtime practices have remained unchanged since DeJoy took office, it said.
"To the extent USPS has made past efforts to monitor or address certain issues regarding overtime usage, such efforts are unrelated to the election," the administration said. "Instead, these efforts consist of ongoing, routine measures to improve efficiency and reduce unnecessary costs."
Any staffing shortages are caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the administration.
The states and cities can't show a connection between the postal service's policies and the future or past delays they allege, according to the filing. The policies were either stopped before the lawsuit began or have no connection with their purported injury, the administration said.
"Plaintiffs' injuries consist of speculative and unjustified concerns over future mail deliveries," it said.
New York state, along with co-plaintiffs New Jersey, New York City, Hawaii and the City and County of San Francisco, filed suit in late August. A similar suit was also filed by Pennsylvania's attorney general in federal court in Philadelphia.
After outcry from both the public and lawmakers over USPS's operational changes, DeJoy announced last month that he was suspending any further changes until after Election Day in order "to avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail."
But the plaintiffs said in their Sept. 2 injunction bid that DeJoy has refused to reverse the changes in full and restore postal operations to the pre-June 2020 standards. A preliminary injunction is needed to right the wrongs, they said.
"The consequences of the postal policy changes are as predictable as they are alarming: substantial delays in mail delivery across the country," they said at the time.
In a statement last week, James said Trump's ultimate goal "is to depress turnout and disenfranchise millions of voters."
"The president's actions are the same as those used in dictatorships and authoritarian governments, but we won't sit idly by as he tries to suppress democracy and every American's fundamental right to vote," she said. "We are filing this motion to stop the president dead in his tracks and to ensure every eligible voter has the opportunity to cast a ballot come November."
The New York Attorney General's Office declined to comment, and the USPS didn't immediately return a request for comment late Friday.
The challengers are represented by attorneys general Letitia James of New York, Clare Connors of Hawaii, Gurbir Grewal of New Jersey, Corporate Counsel James Johnson of New York, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera of the City and County of San Francisco.
The federal government is represented by Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Eric R. Womack, Joseph E. Borson, Kuntal Cholera, Alexis Echols and Dena M. Roth of the U.S. Department of Justice's Federal Programs Branch.
The case is State of New York et al. v. Donald J. Trump et al., case number 1:20-cv-02340, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
--Additional reporting by Matt Fair. Editing by Gemma Horowitz.
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