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USPS is warning election officials that mail-in ballots may not arrive on time

If you're going to vote by mail, make sure you send it in as soon as possible.

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Vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary in Washington. 

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This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's coverage of the voting in November and its aftermath.

You may feel like there's plenty of time until Election Day to send in your mail-in ballots, but the United States Postal Service has warned multiple states that many votes may not be delivered in time to count. Election officials are responding by urging voters to send in their ballots as soon as they can to prevent delays from affecting the 2020 US presidential election's outcome. 

Voting by mail has been around since the Civil War, but demand for it is expected to surge in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Health concerns over the highly contagious disease are leading to a historical number of requests for mail-in ballots. 

The Trump administration has falsely claimed that mail-in ballots will lead to widespread election fraud. He appointed a new postmaster general whose policies would reportedly slow down mail delivery and processing

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called on President Donald Trump to stop the cuts to USPS, accusing the White House of sabotaging the service to help his reelection bid. 

"The president made plain that he will manipulate the operations of the post office to deny eligible voters the ballot in pursuit of his own reelection," Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement on Friday

In late July, the USPS sent letters to election officials in crucial battleground states like Minnesota and Pennsylvania warning that mail-in ballots may not be delivered on time.

"Under our reading of your state's election laws, as in effect on July 27, 2020, certain state-law requirements and deadlines appear to be incompatible with the Postal Service's delivery standards and the recommended timeframe noted above," USPS General Counsel Thomas J. Marshall said in a letter to Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. 

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The recommended time frame called for voters to send their ballots no later than Oct. 27, a week before the election. Minnesota's election laws allow voters to request a ballot as late as the day before the election, and the USPS is warning that it won't be able to deliver the ballots within 24 hours.

"As a result, to the extent that the mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted," Marshall's letter said.

The Washington Post reported that 46 states have received warnings from the USPS that votes may not arrive in time to be counted, because certain states have election laws that invalidate ballots if they arrive after Election Day. 

"Through these efforts, the Postal Service is asking election officials and voters to realistically consider how the mail works, and to be mindful of our delivery standards, in order to provide voters ample time to cast their votes through the mail," USPS said in a statement. 

These potential delays plant the seed for doubt and disinformation about mail-in ballots, prompting election officials to get the word out about voting earlier. 

The warning about ballots not being received in time is more about last-minute voters rather than people sending in their votes weeks ahead of the deadline, so election officials are pushing for voters to take immediate action. 

"If people want to vote from home, order your ballots as soon as you can, and once you get it, vote as soon as you're comfortable," Simon said. He noted that voters could also hand deliver their ballots to a drop-off box rather than relying on USPS. 

With the cuts to USPS' services from the Trump administration, that may be a preferable route, the secretary of state suggested. 

"Just because you got your ballot in the mail doesn't mean you have to send it back that way. As long as you make a plan and build in enough time, it shouldn't be a problem," he said. 

Election officials are also taking legal action to change state rules around ballot deadlines so they could be received in time. 

Pennsylvania's State Department, which received the same warning as Minnesota, is asking its state Supreme Court to allow mail-in ballots to be counted if they're received within three days after the election, as long as they have been postmarked by Nov. 3, according to CBS News.  

A Minnesota court order on Aug. 4 extended the state's ballot deadline, which allows votes to be counted if they're received within one week of Election Day and postmarked by Nov. 3. But the state is still looking to avoid as many last-minute voters lost to the USPS' slowdown as possible. 

Disinformation is a major concern for the presidential election, with social networks working to prevent hoaxes from spreading about vote by mail. These warning letters add another layer, and election officials are hoping that their efforts will be enough to offset doubt about the outcome. 

"I sure hope that a letter like this, which no one seems to have remembered receiving in previous cycles, is not part of a coordinated strategy to sow doubt about the effectiveness of voting from home," Simon said. "You can try to slow down the mail service, but you're not going to slow down democracy."