EXPLAINER: Postal Service, judge at odds over ballot search

A bus drives past a United States Postal Service facility, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Philadelphia. Concerns about mail delivery delays prompted a federal judge to order postal workers in major cities to sweep processing facilities for any remaining ballots before the end of the day. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
A bus drives past a United States Postal Service facility, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Philadelphia. Concerns about mail delivery delays prompted a federal judge to order postal workers in major cities to sweep processing facilities for any remaining ballots before the end of the day. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WHAT HAPPENED:

The U.S. Postal Service says it can't meet a federal judge’s order to sweep processing centers for undelivered mail-in ballots. It is arguing that doing so would be disruptive to its Election Day operations and that it had “physical and operational limitations.”

THE SIGNIFICANCE:

Disputes about mail ballots, particularly those received after Election Day, could be the fuel for court fights over election results in some states.

THE BACKGROUND:

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's order came after weeks of bruising court decisions for an agency that has become heavily politicized under its new leader, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. DeJoy, a major GOP donor, made a series of controversial policy changes in the summer that delayed mail nationwide, fueling worry about the service’s ability to handle the unprecedented crush of mail-in ballots.

At the same time, President Donald Trump has baselessly attacked mail voting as fraudulent throughout his campaign.

Much of Sullivan’s order hinged on postal data showing roughly 300,000 mail-in ballots in several states had not received scans showing they had been delivered. The agency has disputed the accuracy of the figure, saying it has pushed to ensure same-day local delivery of ballots by circumventing certain processing steps entirely, leaving them without the final delivery scan.