DANIEL VAUGHAN: The left’s post office conspiracy theories are fake news

Over the spring, Facebook started flagging news stories containing false or supposedly dangerous information about the coronavirus as “fake news.” That process is now expanding to include news stories and memes on other topics. The latest fake news is that Donald Trump is purposely hurting the United States Postal Service (USPS) to rig election results in the fall.

Facebook is right, as are the fact-checkers: this is a fake news conspiracy theory. There’s no validity to it, just fodder for useful idiots.

First up, we have USA Today, which investigated the issue. The outlet concluded:

It is false to say mail is intentionally being slowed, despite reports that a new USPS [United States Postal Service] system might inherently cause delays. The Trump administration said the president did not direct USPS to slow down its deliveries, and USA TODAY found no evidence of that claim being true either.

The “new system” to which the left points, both in the USA Today fact-check — and elsewhere — have little to do with Trump. The USPS has been searching for ways to reduce overtime hours and other labor costs for years.

For instance, in April of 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a follow-up report on the implementation of such cost-cutting measures. It found that the USPS had successfully cut labor needs and hours worked across more than 13,000 USPS offices across the country. In a more recent report from December of 2019, the USPS noted that it continued to struggle with labor costs despite a drop in mail volume:

Between fiscal years 2009 and 2018, overall labor costs fell 14 percent when adjusted for inflation, although mail volume declined 17 percent. At first blush, it might seem labor costs should have dropped more dramatically given this decline in mail. That is, aren’t fewer workers needed if the workload is getting smaller?

Well, there are reasons costs won’t always decline in lockstep with volume. For one, some costs don’t change much in response to changes in mail volume. For example, mail carriers need to cover their entire route regardless of the amount of mail in their bag. In addition, delivery points are growing even as mail volumes are declining. And more delivery points often mean more carrier costs – a dichotomy that will require strategic cost-control initiatives.

That last point is important: the problem of ever-expanding delivery and pickup points. The USPS can’t control how many addresses to which it must deliver, but as mail volumes drop and fewer people use the service, a decrease in the number of drop-off locations seems logical.

That’s the other angle to these conspiracy theories: people are posting photos of the iconic blue USPS drop-off boxes being loaded onto trucks and removed from locations around the country. These posts, however, don’t reveal a conspiracy theory, but rather an ongoing cost-saving practice.

As far back as 2011, left-leaning outlet Snopes reported that “the U.S. Postal Service has removed more than 60 percent of the blue boxes. […] In 1985, nearly 400,000 blue mailboxes graced American streets. Now only 160,000 remain, and more are vanishing every day.”

In a five-year stretch during the Obama administration, the USPS estimated that another 12,000 collection boxes had been removed. Drop-off boxes are indeed being eliminated in some areas, but it’s not a conspiracy. The fact is that people simply aren’t using them as much as in the past, and they’re cost-prohibitive to maintain.

Even if the boxes need to stay, they still may be removed from certain locations because the USPS has updated the design of the drop-off points. In March of 2019, The New York Times reported that the USPS was slowly replacing existing drop-off boxes to combat specific methods of fraud.

As for the upcoming election, Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine notes:

Even if all voters used the mail and posted their ballots on exactly the same day, that would comprise only 30 percent of the amount of mail the USPS says it processes every single day. So if the USPS screws up delivering votes in a timely and efficient manner this fall, it won’t be because of any sinister actions by the White House. It will be because of longstanding, well-documented managerial and cultural problems.

I’ve written at length that an increase in mail-in voting could cause significant issues in the fall. And what we know is that many of the same people pushing these USPS conspiracy theories are looking for any excuse to discount the results of the election if they go “the wrong way.” The USPS conspiracy theory is merely the latest attempt to claim the November election outcome will somehow be illegitimate.

That hasn’t stopped those pushing this narrative; it rarely does. And that also hasn’t stopped the fake memes, claiming to be from the USPS employee union, saying that not even “fascism” can stop them from fulfilling their duty. The union denied involvement with the meme and said they’d be in serious trouble if they ever created anything like it.

We know the USPS is struggling. That’s nothing new. Just this year, the agency has had issues with package scanning and has faced difficulties in dealing with the effects of the coronavirus. On top of that, there is the problem of massively underfunded liabilities about which the GAO warns practically every year concerning the USPS.

All of the latest hand-wringing is fake news, designed to make people lose belief in the entire electoral system. It’s a dangerous ploy, and it needs to stop.

Because if we know one thing from 2016, it’s this: foreign actors like Russia and China will promote any message delegitimizing the U.S. government. It wouldn’t shock me if these two countries were helping create some of these memes and dropping money behind them to maximize their exposure.

Chances are, these foreign actors won’t make a huge impact. But where and when they choose to pull on the strings of division in this country should alarm everyone. We know they did it in 2016, we know they’ll do it in 2020. And we know that these outlandish conspiracy theories, started by Americans, provide ample fuel for national discord.