Civil rights groups and the U.S. Postal Service struck a deal on speedier ballot-handling procedures ahead of Georgia’s critical runoff election, avoiding a court battle at a time the mail system is getting hammered by holiday packages and staffing shortages.

More than 2 million Georgians have cast their votes in the Jan. 5 race that will decide control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock are attempting to unseat two Republican incumbents — Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — by maximizing early and absentee votes from key constituencies, especially Black voters in the Atlanta area, that have been hit especially hard by mail slowdowns playing out across the country for months.

The agreement on ballot processing marks a significant pivot for the Postal Service and its Justice Department lawyers in a case that began in August. The civil rights groups, the NAACP and Vote Forward, argued to U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy should have secured a regulator’s opinion before enacting an aggressive cost-cutting agenda blamed for delaying more than 7 percent of the nation’s mail this past summer. They also claimed that such slowdowns erode the mail agency’s ability to facilitate ballot deliveries.

Sullivan agreed and blocked DeJoy’s moves. The agency spent weeks negotiating with the plaintiffs in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 election, only to appeal Sullivan’s ruling shortly thereafter.

The Postal Service returned to negotiations and, without conceding ground in the case, agreed Wednesday to adopt measures designed to expedite ballot processing and delivery.

The agency agreed to treat ballots still in processing plants within three days of the election as express mail, which translates to next-day delivery. Ballots traveling from a printing vendor in New York to Georgia residents would also get fast-tracked. Additionally, the mail service agreed to: bypass processing plants and route completed ballots in Atlanta directly to vote counters; conduct sweeps of postal facilities for misplaced ballots and report the results daily; and follow previous court-ordered procedures for expediting ballots.

The deal follows the release of troubling ballot-processing data in the Atlanta postal district, the state’s most populous region and its most diverse. The city and its suburbs were crucial to delivering Georgia to President-elect Joe Biden, and they have accounted for 565,000 of absentee ballots requested, or more than 40 percent of the state’s total in the runoffs. The region also has recorded some of the worst mail service in the South.

In the Gulf Atlantic postal district, which stretches from just below Atlanta through all points south and east, 93.7 percent of ballots have been processed on time, according to court data obtained by The Washington Post. In the Tennessee district, which serves a northwest sliver of the state, 88 percent were on time. A ballot is on time if it arrived within the one- to three-day delivery window expected of first-class mail.

But the Atlanta district, where more than 150,000 mail ballots have already been processed, only 80.4 percent were on time. And in the six days in December when the district processed more than 10,000 ballots — totaling to more than half the number of ballots the district has processed — only 68.1 percent were on time. Postal experts say the agency score should be close to 97 percent.

“We witnessed the attacks on the Postal Service, that it felt like a strategic target of the [Trump] administration and its supporters,” said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voting rights group. “We couldn’t tell what was misinformation and disinformation, and what was an accurate account of the challenges of the Postal Service in this moment.”

Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer wrote in an emailed statement that “none of the Election Mail lawsuits are justified by the facts or supported by the applicable law.”

“We will continue to defend our integrity and credibility and counter the false narrative that is being advanced in these lawsuits,” he wrote.

He emphasized that facilitating the November and January elections “has been our number one priority for past the eight months.”

The agency has blamed mail difficulties on rising coronavirus cases within its workforce and unprecedented volumes of holiday packages that have gridlocked postal facilities across the country. In Atlanta alone, nearly 2,500 of the district’s 15,000 workers are out because of the virus, either because of testing positive, a recent exposure or because of child-care concerns, said Stacey Sabir Brown, president of the metro Atlanta chapter of the American Postal Workers union.

Though Atlanta has a mask mandate, which includes workplaces, thousands of postal workers operate outside city limits where masks are not required. Sabir Brown said she receives calls daily from colleagues concerned about their health and lax safety standards.

“We’re stressed and fearful,” Sabir Brown said.

But workers are determined, she said, to do their parts for the runoff elections, where vote-by-mail participation could shatter the records set in November. The APWU has representatives on election-mail task forces in each processing plant, which conduct daily sweeps to ensure no ballots are mistakenly left behind.

The system proved successful during the general election in Georgia, where election administration experts praised Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s performance despite unfounded accusations of fraud by President Trump and his allies.

“The more we stay ahead of the game, the better. We get hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail daily and we have emails showing us which ballots we are looking for,” said Chantriss Flanagan, the assistant clerk craft director for the APWU in one Atlanta processing facility and a member of the task force. “This time, we know what we’re expecting, so we’re ahead. When this stuff hits the dock, we’re able to put it in the proper place and we’re not scattered all over the building to make sure that we’re clear.”

Postal and election workers may also get a reprieve with voter turnout expected to slow slightly in the coming days. The difference between turnout now and in October has increased by 1 percentage point and in-person voting has slowed relative to October as Christmas approaches. That, along with no in-person voting Thursday, Friday and New Year’s Day means Georgians will have fewer opportunities to cast ballots in person.

Democrats, measured by primary participation, continue to have a slight advantage in the votes cast, running 1.5 percentage points ahead of October rates. The difference is mostly driven by Black turnout, which makes up 2 percentage points more of the total turnout than it did previously. The question is whether Democrats will be able to maintain that advantage, especially considering a strong Republican showing expected on Election Day.

More than 2 million Georgians have already voted in the contests, including 721,000 by mail. More than 1.3 million Georgians requested mail-in ballots.

“Vote-by-mail also deserves some of the credit and did some of the heavy lifting making sure Republicans weren’t able to steal this election in Georgia and other states,” Ufot said. “Vote-by-mail is safe in terms of your health and making sure you don’t contract the virus, but it also is safe in terms of creating a paper trail.”

But given the gargantuan size of the Postal Service — 644,000 employees nationwide — voting rights advocates and postal experts have worried aloud about changes to agency procedure so close to Election Day. The Postal Service argued to Sullivan that such changes would do more harm than good by disrupting established practices. Agency executives testified that it can take close to a week for orders from the top brass to reach the rank-and-file.

“The Postal Service has been problematic for a long time, but I’m skeptical of the efficacy of last minute interventions,” said Allison Riggs, the interim director and chief voting rights counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “With holiday mail traffic, one of the things USPS said in it’s defense was, ‘This [general election mail] is going to be nothing compared to our holiday mail.’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh, crap, we have holiday mail and an election.’”

Vote Forward executive director Scott Forman said in a statement that the group is hopeful the new measures will be “particularly useful” in expediting ballot deliveries, but that it would continue to monitor the Postal Service’s performance “to ensure USPS follows through with its commitments.”“We are prepared to hold them accountable if they do not,” he said. “Also, regardless of this agreement, we continue to urge all voters in Georgia to vote as early as possible.”

Though most experts hailed the general the election as a success — 65 million Americans voted by mail, and DeJoy reported the vast majority of completed ballots were delivered on time — the Postal Service struggled.

It cut out key ballot-tracking steps in the name of expediency that caused it to lose track of 300,000 ballots. Though most arrived on time, the agency told the court, election administration experts expressed alarm that the Postal Service was cutting operational corners.

It also defied Sullivan’s Election Day order to conduct ballot sweeps of processing facilities earlier in the day to ensure there was enough time to deliver the votes in time to be counted. In a response filed shortly before polls closed in dozens of states, the mail agency said it would conduct the sweeps on its own schedule. Sullivan threatened to hold DeJoy in contempt over the agency’s noncompliance.

The NAACP and Vote Forward noted in their Wednesday agreement that they were poised to ask a judge to intervene further in the case and compel more operational changes, but said they would hold off if the Postal Service stuck to its end of the deal. They also agreed to negotiate out of court if problems cropped up before asking a court to weigh in.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.