The US Postal Service (USPS) has warned that millions of mail-in votes may not arrive in time to be counted on the presidential election day, 3 November.
The warning has come at the same time that it has emerged that the US Postal Service Office of Inspector General is investigating reports of service disruptions and other issues raised by lawmakers, a spokeswoman for Senator Elizabeth Warren said.
In letters to states across the country last month, the USPS said "certain deadlines... are incongruous with the Postal Service's delivery standards".
Critics have blamed the new USPS head, Louis DeJoy - a loyal supporter of President Donald Trump - for a slowdown in deliveries.
A record number of people are expected to vote by mail due to the pandemic.
But yesterday, US President Donald Trump said he was blocking additional funding for the USPS to help with election issues, because he opposed mail-in voting.
He has repeatedly said mail-in ballots will lead to voting fraud - and give a boost to his rival Democrat Joe Biden. Experts say the mail-in voting system - which is used by the American military and by Trump himself - is safe from tampering.
Former president Barack Obama strongly criticised what he described as Trump's "attempts to undermine the election", writing on Twitter that the administration was "more concerned with suppressing the vote than suppressing a virus".
Meanwhile, Congress's two top Democrats - Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer - called on the president to stop his "assault" on the postal service and "allow the 2020 election to proceed without his sabotage tactics".
Their comments come as a poll by Axios/ Survey Monkey found that three-quarters of Republican voters plan to vote in person, while more than half of Democratic voters plan to use a mail vote.
Battleground state among those warned of delays
The USPS, which has long been in has long been in financial trouble, carrying about $US160 billion ($NZ241b) in debt, sent letters to states across the US in July, warning that it could not guarantee that all votes cast by mail would arrive on time to be counted. According to NBC News, at least 15 states have received a letter.
In a letter to Pennsylvania's secretary of state, the USPS said mail-in ballots requested one week before the 3 November election - allowed under the state's election laws - may not reach their destination on time because the state's deadlines are too tight for its "delivery standards".
USPS general counsel Thomas Marshall said a "mismatch" between Pennsylvania's laws and the mail system's delivery capabilities "creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them".
The letter was made public yesterday as Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar asked the state's supreme court to allow ballots to be counted as long as they were received up to three days after the election. Currently, votes are discarded if they are received after election day.
Pennsylvania is a battleground state, which Trump won by less than 1 percent in the 2016 election. Other battleground states, including Florida and Michigan, also received letters, according to US media reports.
The Democratic governor in Pennsylvania's neighbouring New Jersey announced today that the state would pre-emptively send ballots to every registered voter in the state. The process of sending out ballots is known as universal mail-in voting, and has been adopted in nine other US states.
Watchdog to probe US Postal Service
Meanwhile, the US Postal Service Office of Inspector General is investigating the reports of service disruptions and other issues raised by lawmakers.
"We have learned that the United States Postal Service Office of the Inspector General is investigating all aspects of our request from August 7th and that they've already requested documents as part of the review," Elizabeth Warren's spokeswoman Saloni Sharma said.
A spokeswoman for US Postal Service inspector general Tammy Whitcomb said the office is "in receipt of the congressional request and are conducting a body of work to address concerns raised", but declined to comment further.
The 7 August letter from a number of US lawmakers asked for "a thorough audit of all operational changes put in place in recent weeks to determine the rationale behind these changes, if any analyses of their impact were conducted before implementation, their effect on the quality of mail delivery, and how it will impact services needed for the 2020 election".
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who has donated $US2.7 million ($NZ4.1m) to Trump and his fellow Republicans since 2017, has ordered operational changes and a clampdown on overtime in a bid to fix the financially troubled service, which reported a net loss of $US2.2 billion in the last quarter.
The lawmakers also asked if DeJoy and his wife have "met all ethics requirements regarding disclosure, divestment, and recusal from decisions in which he may have a conflict".
A spokesman for DeJoy did not immediately comment. The changes include scaled back retail hours and orders for delivery trucks to leave on time even if mail is still being loaded. They have led to delays across the country, workers and political leaders say.
The disruptions come as election officials plan to send tens of millions of ballots by mail ahead of the 3 November presidential election, despite unfounded claims by Trump that mail voting could lead to widespread fraud. Experts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.
- BBC / Reuters