U.S. judge orders Post Office to expedite November election mail

By David Shepardson and Joseph Ax

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday ordered the U.S. Postal Service to expedite all November election mail and to approve additional overtime for postal workers.

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in Manhattan said the Postal Service must treat to the extent possible all election mail as first-class mail or priority mail express and “shall pre-approve all overtime that has been or will be requested” between Oct. 26 and Nov. 6.

Marrero’s opinion said that in prior elections, including 2018, the Postal Service typically treated election mail as first-class mail, even if it was sent at marketing mail rates.

“Multiple managerial failures have undermined the postal employees’ ability to fulfill their vital mission,” he wrote.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian in Yakima, Washington, said he was issuing a nationwide injunction sought by 14 states in a case against President Donald Trump, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, and the U.S. Postal Service over July changes to the service.

The 14 states, led by Washington, had filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asking the court to immediately halt a “leave mail behind” policy that required postal trucks to leave at certain times, regardless of whether mail was loaded.

DeJoy, a Trump supporter, said in August that he would halt many of the cost-cutting changes he put in place until after the presidential election after Democrats accused him of trying to put his thumb on the scales to help Trump, which he has denied. A surge in mail-in ballots is expected because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer said last week while the agency was exploring its legal options, it was “ready and committed to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives.”

“Our number one priority is to deliver election mail on time,” Partenheimer said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. states see major challenge in delivering record mail ballots in November

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With a health crisis expected to drive a surge in mail voting in November, U.S. election officials face a major challenge: Ensure tens of millions of ballots can reach voters in time to be cast, and are returned in time to be counted.

Recent presidential nomination contests and other elections held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – a warm-up for the Nov. 3 general election if COVID-19 remains a threat – showed some states have been overwhelmed by the sudden rush to vote by mail.

Nearly half of U.S. states allow voters to request absentee ballots less than a week before their elections. Even under normal circumstances, that often is too little lead time to guarantee voters will receive their ballots and have sufficient time to return them, election experts and state officials say.

In Ohio, for example, whose nearly all-mail election on April 28 was marred by ballot delivery delays, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose has asked state lawmakers to change the deadline for voters to request a mail ballot to one week before an election, up from three days currently.

“It is not logistically possible” for all voters asking for ballots at the last minute to get them in time to return them by mail, LaRose told Reuters. “That relies on a lot of luck.”

At stake is the integrity of the general election, and possibly its outcome. Voters who follow their state’s rules but can’t get their ballots back in time due to no fault of their own could be effectively disenfranchised. That could spark legal challenges in states where the race between President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden will be decided by slim margins. Tight contests could also decide control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

“Citizens could respond to all this and say our democracy is broken,” said Paul Gronke, a political scientist who expects about half of all ballots to be cast by mail in November, compared to a fifth delivered that way in 2016.

“Election officials need to move now” to make preparations to expeditiously move election mail and to avoid widespread disenfranchisement, said Gronke, who heads the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland.

FILE PHOTO: Mail-in ballots for the upcoming congressional election in Orange County wait to be inspected by election workers at the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana, California, U.S. October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Some are taking action. Wisconsin’s bipartisan election commission is working on adding new barcodes to ballot envelopes for tracking them in the mail, a move experts say would help the United States Postal Service process them more quickly. The commission also plans to mail absentee ballot applications to 2.7 million registered voters who are not already on absentee voter rolls, a move that should help reduce 11th-hour requests.

Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State likewise plans to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter ahead of November’s election, as Republican secretaries of state in Georgia and Iowa did for their June primaries.

Trump has criticized Michigan’s plan, and some Republican state lawmakers called it an unnecessary expense. The president and his allies nationwide have repeatedly said mail voting is prone to fraud, even as numerous independent studies have found little evidence of that.

Experts are most worried about battleground states that have little history of large-scale voting by mail, including Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. They are among the 24 states in which mail-in ballots comprised no more than 8% of ballots counted in 2018 midterm elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Failure by these states to prepare could lead to messy legal fights in the event of a close contest in November, said Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University.

“If you have 10,000 voters that never got their ballots, or their ballots didn’t get returned by the post office and the statewide margin is 3,000, well now you have got litigation over the results,” Foley said.

The Postal Service has internally set delivery targets for election mail ranging between one and three days, according to an audit of election mail service by the USPS Inspector General published in November. But in the 2018 elections, about one in 20 political and election mailings took longer than targeted, the audit found.

In a statement to Reuters, the Postal Service said it is holding discussions with state and local election officials nationwide on how to design their mailings for efficient processing and delivery.

Some voting rights advocates worry these efforts don’t go far enough. Setting an earlier deadline for requesting a ballot could also make it harder for people to vote if they contract the coronavirus or have other problems just before the election, said Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Miller is advocating that Ohio send ballot applications to all registered voters and set up more drop boxes so that concerned voters can deposit ballots there.

“I think it’s reasonable for an Ohioan to be worried about putting their ballot in the mail,” Miller said.

(For a graphic on the share of U.S. voters who cast mail ballots, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2XvVajc)

‘TERRIFIC CHALLENGES’

April elections in Wisconsin and Ohio, which included presidential nomination contests, offered a preview of what could happen if the coronavirus is raging in November and in-person voting is severely restricted.

After Ohio sharply curtailed in-person voting, election officials were inundated with roughly 2 million applications for mail-in ballots – more than six times the number of mail ballots cast in the 2016 primary. But as they scrambled to process the requests, they discovered that some ballots mailed out to voters took as long as nine days to reach them.

What was not known to them at the time, and which Reuters has exclusively learned, was that a coronavirus outbreak was ravaging a mail sorting facility in neighboring Michigan called the Michigan Metroplex, delaying election mail bound for northwestern Ohio.

At least two workers at the Detroit-area plant died after testing positive for COVID-19, and hundreds of its roughly 700 union workers were out sick or in quarantine on many days between mid-March and mid-April, according to Roscoe Woods, the head of the local branch of the American Postal Workers Union.

Letters were shipped to Ohio unsorted, forcing local post offices there to organize mail manually for delivery, Woods told Reuters.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for the level of infection,” Woods said.

The Postal Service told Reuters it was investigating the matter, but would not confirm a coronavirus outbreak at the Metroplex. A spokesman for the office of LaRose, the Ohio Secretary of State, said the Postal Service confirmed the Metroplex was the problem facility.

LaRose said the experience left him with big concerns about November. He anticipates as many as 60% of Ohio’s ballots will be cast by mail, triple the percentage from 2016.

“I hope we never have to have an all vote-by-mail election again,” he said.

In Wisconsin, an important battleground state that was decided in Trump’s favor by less than a percentage point in 2016, about 1.3 million voters applied for absentee ballots for its April 7 primary, overloading officials accustomed to issuing only a fraction of that number.

In a May 15 report, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said 2,659 ballots were tossed out because they arrived after April 13, the last day ballots postmarked by Election Day could be counted. The commission does not know how many of these were postmarked in time, spokesman Reid Magney said.

The commission said it expects “terrific challenges” in November. It estimates more than half the state’s 3.4 million registered voters could request mail ballots. In November 2016, just under 150,000 – or about 5% of three million votes – were cast by mail.

In North Carolina, another competitive state, the state election board expects 30% to 40% of ballots to be cast by mail and is working to implement new barcodes on all ballot envelopes, said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the board.

Mail ballots that arrive at North Carolina election offices up to three days after the election are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

But Jason Roberts, a Democratic member of the board of elections for Orange County, North Carolina, said he saw scores of ballots in the state’s March primary that were postmarked in time but arrived four or five days after the election.

“I would be hesitant to vote by mail in North Carolina on Election Day given what I’ve seen,” Roberts said.

(Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson)

Frost thaws in U.S.-China ties ahead of G20 meeting

FILE PHOTO: U.S. and Chinese flags are placed for a joint news conference by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

By David Brunnstrom and John Geddie

WASHINGTON/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The United States and China will hold a delayed top-level security dialogue on Friday, the latest sign of a thaw in relations, as China’s vice president said Beijing was willing to talk with Washington to resolve their bitter trade dispute.

The resumption of high-level dialogue, marked by a phone call last week between Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, comes ahead of an expected meeting between the two at the G20 summit in Argentina starting in late November.

It follows months of recriminations spanning trade, U.S. accusations of Chinese political interference, the disputed South China Sea and self-ruled Taiwan.

China and the United States have both described last week’s telephone call between Xi and Trump as positive. Trump predicted he’d be able to make a deal with China on trade.

In a concrete sign of the unfreezing, the U.S. State Department said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe will take part in diplomatic and security talks later this week in Washington.

China said last month the two sides had initially agreed “in principle” to hold the second round of diplomatic security talks in October but they were postponed at Washington’s request amid rising tensions over trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Mattis had been due to hold talks with Wei in Beijing in October, but those plans were upended after Washington imposed sanctions on China’s People’s Liberation Army for buying weapons from Russia.

Mattis did meet Wei in Singapore on Oct. 18 and told him that the world’s two largest economies needed to deepen high-level ties to reduce the risk of conflict.

Speaking in Singapore on Tuesday, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, who is close to Xi, reiterated China’s readiness to hold discussions and work with the United States to resolve trade disputes as the world’s two largest economies stand to lose from confrontation.

“Both China and the U.S. would love to see greater trade and economic cooperation,” Wang told the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore.

“The Chinese side is ready to have discussions with the U.S. on issues of mutual concern and work for a solution on trade acceptable to both sides,” he said.

“The world today faces many major problems that require close co-operation between China and the United States,” Wang said.

Wang echoed comments made by Xi on Monday at a major import fair in Shanghai that Beijing will embrace greater openness.

Trump has railed against China over intellectual property theft, entry barriers to U.S. business and a gaping trade deficit, which U.S. data showed reached a record $40.2 billion in September.

The trade war, which has seen both sides impose tariffs on billions of dollars worth of the other’s imports, is beginning to hurt China’s economy and has battered Chinese shares and the yuan currency.

It has also brought purchases of U.S. soybeans by China to a virtual standstill. Soybeans are the largest U.S. agricultural export to China.

Jim Sutter, CEO of the U.S. Soybean Export Council, told Reuters on the sidelines of the Shanghai import fair that both countries understood the need to maintain their relationship.

“I think both sides are optimistic … more optimistic after the call last week that took place, that some kind of a solution can be reached,” he said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and John Geddie; Additional reporting by Tom Daly and Michael Martina in Shanghai; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Tony Munroe and Neil Fullick)

Rouhani warns U.S. over preventing Iran from exporting oil: ISNA

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday cautioned the United States about pursuing hostile policies against Tehran, saying preventing Iran from exporting oil would be “very dangerous”, but he did not rule out talks between the two countries.

“Imposing sanctions on Iran to prevent us from selling our oil will be very dangerous … If (U.S. President Donald) Trump wants to talk to Iran, then he first should return to the (2015) nuclear deal first,” the ISNA news agency quoted Rouhani as saying in a meeting with senior editors of foreign media in New York.

Rouhani is in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly.

In May, Trump pulled out of the international nuclear deal with Iran and announced sanctions against the OPEC member. Washington is pushing allies to cut imports of Iranian oil to zero and will impose a new round of sanctions on Iranian oil sales in November.

Under the accord, most international sanctions against Tehran were lifted in 2016 in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. judge will not force Georgia to use paper ballots despite concerns

FILE PHOTO: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks with visitors to the state capitol about the "SEC primary" involving a group of southern states voting next month in Atlanta, Georgia February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Letitia Stein/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A federal judge will not force Georgia to use paper ballots for the November election, citing the potential for last-minute confusion, but expressed concern that the state’s electronic machines could be vulnerable to hacking.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg said in a ruling late on Monday that while it is important for citizens to know their ballots are properly counted, voters also must rely on a smooth process, especially in a fast-approaching election race.

“Ultimately, any chaos or problems that arise in connection with a sudden rollout of a paper ballot system with accompanying scanning equipment may swamp the polls with work and voters – and result in voter frustration and disaffection from the voting process,” Totenberg said in a 46-page decision.

The state’s November contests include a gubernatorial race that is among the most high-profile in the country. Democrat Stacey Abrams faces Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is responsible for the state’s elections and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

If elected, Abrams would be the first black female governor in the United States.

Georgia is one of five states that use touchscreen machines with no paper record.

Voting rights groups and individual voters sued Georgia officials in 2017, alleging that the electronic machines are highly vulnerable to hacking and cannot be audited or verified. The judge’s decision to reject their request to require paper ballots in November does not affect the underlying lawsuit, which will continue.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, David Cross, said that while they were disappointed the judge had not imposed paper ballots for November, her decision was nevertheless a victory because she agreed the current election system is “woefully inadequate and insecure.”

Georgia has used direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines exclusively since 2002. The machines have drawn criticism from various advocacy groups and federal agencies, including U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials who called the systems a “national security concern” in March, according to Totenberg.

“Plaintiffs shine a spotlight on the serious security flaws and vulnerabilities in the state’s DRE system,” Totenberg said in the court order.

A representative from Kemp’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Kemp on Monday said that Georgia’s electronic voting machines are secure and that switching to paper ballots would cause “chaos,” according to the Atlantic Journal-Constitution newspaper.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Joseph Ax and Susan Thomas)

U.S. retail sales slow in November; producer prices increase

A woman sits in Herald Square with bags of shopping during Black Friday sales in Manhattan, New York,

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales barely rose in November as households cut back on purchases of motor vehicles, suggesting some loss of momentum in economic growth in the fourth quarter.

Other data on Wednesday pointed to steadily rising inflation pressures, with producer prices notching their largest increase in five months in November. The moderation in retail sales came after two straight months of strong gains. With incomes rising and household wealth at record highs, the cool-off in retail sales is likely to be temporary.

Against the backdrop of a tightening labor market and perking inflation, the Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates later on Wednesday. The U.S. central bank hiked its overnight benchmark interest rate last December for the first time in nearly a decade.

“There is still strong support for consumer spending, namely steady job growth and wages heading higher. Santa will still be coming to town this year.” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Retail sales edged up 0.1 percent last month after rising 0.6 percent in October, the Commerce Department said. Sales were up 3.8 percent from a year ago. Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales also nudged up 0.1 percent last month after gaining 0.6 percent in October.

These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic

product. Economists had forecast overall retail sales increasing 0.3 percent and core sales also gaining 0.3 percent last month.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand increased 0.4 percent last month, the largest gain since June, after being unchanged in October.

In the 12 months through October, the PPI rose 1.3 percent, the biggest gain since November 2014. The PPI rose 0.8 percent in the 12 months through October.

A 0.5 percent increase in the cost of services accounted for more than 80 percent of the rise in the final demand PPI last month. The increase, which followed a 0.3 percent decline in October, was the largest since January.

With producer prices pushing higher, overall inflation is expected to steadily move toward the Fed’s 2 percent target.

The dollar fell to a session low against the yen on the retail sales data, while prices for longer-dated U.S. government bonds rose. U.S. stock index futures fell slightly.

The softer-than-expected retail sales numbers last month suggest a slowdown in consumer spending in the fourth quarter, which could see economists trim their GDP forecasts for the period. Still, consumers should continue to support the economy in the fourth quarter.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP rising at a 2.6 percent annualized rate in the fourth quarter. The economy grew at a 3.2 percent pace in the third quarter.

Last month, auto sales fell 0.5 percent, the largest decline since March, after increasing 0.5 percent in October. Sales at building material stores rose 0.3 percent.

Receipts at clothing stores were flat, suggesting a weak start to the holiday shopping season. Department stores like Macy’s <M.N> and Kohl’s <KSS.N> are facing intense competition from online retailers such as Amazon <AMZN.O>, which have snatched a large chunk of the market share.

Sales at online retailers gained 0.1 percent last month after surging 1.4 percent in October. Receipts at restaurants and bars increased 0.8 percent, while sales at sporting goods and hobby stores fell 1.0 percent. Receipts at service stations gained 0.3 percent after jumping 2.5 percent in October.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)