On July 29, the Republican National Committee posted a clip from a CBS News report about a mock election conducted by CBS This Morning, in which the United States Postal Service was unable to deliver some mock mail-in ballots on time. Within 24 hours, President Donald Trump had tweeted about it, and numerous right-wing outlets joined in touting the report as evidence that the mail-in voting process is supposedly rife with fraud.
In reality, the CBS piece proved nothing of the sort; it simply illustrated that the Postal Service has trouble delivering mail on time for numerous reasons, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and that it might affect when and how ballots are counted. But right-wing media were easily able to spin the segment into propaganda against vote by mail because the report lacked vital context: The Postal Service’s delivery troubles are largely due to actions taken by the Trump administration.
The CBS report found 3% of mock ballots were undelivered after one week
CBS This Morning co-host Tony Dokoupil mailed 100 mock ballots to see how many would successfully show up at a P.O. box used to represent a local election office. Only 97 of the mock ballots were delivered within a week. CBS News noted: “According to Postal Service recommendations, ‘voters should mail their return ballots at least one week prior to the due date.’ However, nearly half of all states still allow voters to request ballots less than a week before the election.”
Dokoupil spent the rest of the segment discussing the potential outcome if 3% of Americans will be effectively disenfranchised due to a slowed-down mail service failing to deliver their ballot on time. Additionally, the CBS segment featured man-on-the-street interviews in which people talked about how they don’t trust the Postal Service (USPS actually has a history of being American's favorite federal agency, which CBS declines to mention).
Dokoupil also posted a thread to Twitter where he attempted to add more context to the segment, including the detail that his experience matched the Postal Service’s self-assessment of its success rate in delivering mail on time.
But nowhere in the original segment or the subsequent Twitter thread did Dokoupil mention why the mail might be chronically delayed. The segment did not misinform its audience per se, but it created confusion about why mail-in voting has flaws in the first place and where those flaws originate. This lapse allowed the report to be co-opted by the right-wing media apparatus in its campaign for in-person voting -- or perhaps less voting overall -- in the middle of a pandemic.
The Trump administration is making a slow Postal Service even slower
The Postal Service is not prepared to deliver many millions of mail-in ballots on time to be counted for Election Day. The agency is plagued with financial troubles and delivery slowdowns that date back to the Obama administration, but which have been made even worse under Trump -- with some people even saying they’re going weeks without receiving their mail. And newly appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has potential conflicts of interest. Together with his wife, the Trump campaign donor owns millions of dollars worth of stakes in Postal Service competitors and contractors. In addition:
- DeJoy has mandated cuts in overtime regardless of whether they cause delivery delays. Critics have warned that DeJoy’s changes to the Postal Service “would sacrifice operational efficiency and cede its competitive edge to UPS, FedEx and other private-sector rivals.”
- Following DeJoy’s changes, dayslong backlogs of mail are now piling up across the country and “alarming postal workers who warn that the policies could undermine their ability to deliver ballots on time for the November election.”
- The changes are already causing problems in primaries. In Detroit, The Washington Post reported that “the city had received a notice from the Postal Service that it could not guarantee delivery of mail-in ballots by Aug. 4,” and some postal workers in the city tried to deliver mail on their own time in an attempt to get around the new overtime mandate.
- The United Postal Workers Union is sounding the alarm, saying the pile-up of budget issues, delivery slowdowns, and antagonistic leadership will impact the delivery of ballots for the 2020 general election.
- The Postal Service in theory has money it can access, but conflicts with the Treasury Department prevent it from accessing the funds. Congress mandated $10 billion in loans to the Postal Service, but Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin’s terms of the loan would require much of the Postal Service and its operations to end up in the hands of the Treasury Department.
All of this context explaining why the Postal Service may struggle to deliver ballots on time to be counted on Election Day is missing from CBS This Morning’s report on mail-in voting.
RNC seizes on CBS report, and the right-wing media ecosystem activates to follow its lead
On July 29, five days after the original CBS This Morning report aired, the RNC tweeted a portion of the Dokoupil piece, misattributing the report to local Georgia CBS-affiliated station WRDW while writing: “Local news’ experiment in mail-in voting ends in disaster: ‘I just don’t trust the mail.’” A few hours later, GOP Rapid Response Director Steve Guest and Trump both tweeted about the piece, including the RNC’s misattribution, and the president referenced CBS This Morning’s vote-by-mail experiment in a July 30 press conference:
Right-wing media quickly picked up the segment as well, using it to attack the Postal Service and to continue fearmongering about voting by mail:
- On July 30, Fox “news”-side anchor Shannon Bream played a clip of the CBS piece during Fox News @ Night while talking about the president’s earlier press conference, before launching into a segment framing New York’s mail-in primary as a disaster:
- Fox & Friends referenced the CBS report on July 31, the day after Trump’s press conference, saying it warns of a disaster. Co-host Ainsley Earhardt claimed that “a lot of Americans don’t trust the U.S. postal system because they’ve had budget cuts” -- failing to note that Trump himself is the cause of those cuts:
RUSH LIMBAUGH: So CBS sets up an experiment. I don’t know what their thought was. I don’t know what they thought was gonna happen. My guess is that by doing the experiment, they wanted to prove that mail-in ballots are fine, that the post office can deal with it, don’t worry about stuff getting lost and don’t worry about it not being delivered on time and don’t worry about any of that. And the exact opposite was discovered and happened. The results ended in disaster.
- The Washington Examiner covered the segment following the RNC’s June 29 tweet but correctly attributed it to CBS in the headline “RNC warns of ‘disaster’ after CBS mail-in voting experiment reveals potential problems.” The article shared the GOP’s fearmongering about mail-in voting but correctly noted that “real ballots do have a logo that is intended to expedite them that CBS was unable to replicate” and the Postal Service “recommends voters send out mail-in ballots at least one week prior to the due date.”
- On July 29, Real Clear Politics published an article titled “Local News Experiment With Mail-In Ballots Ends In Disaster: ‘I Just Don't Trust The Mail,’” with a link to the Team Trump Facebook post featuring the WRDW video.
- That same day, The Daily Wire published a piece titled “CBS Mail-In Voting Experiment Shows Potentially Serious Issue,” which referenced the RNC tweet in the lede “to warn of ‘disaster’ if the upcoming election hinges on” mail-in ballots.
- Townhall posted an article wrongly attributing the piece to a local reporter, claiming the experiment ended in disaster, and citing the segment as “proof that in-person voting must happen and the integrity of the election is at stake.”
- On July 30, RedState used the CBS piece to try to prove that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is wrong to push for expanding mail-in voting.
- Media Research Center’s Newsbusters called the piece a “SHOCK” that “Proves Mail-In Ballots Could Be a Disaster” and “refute[s] the dismissive tone of other journalists when covering Donald Trump’s concerns about mail-in voting.”
- Gateway Pundit repeated the RNC’s mistake in attributing the CBS report to local news and said the experiment “does not go well,” highlighting tweets by GOP’s Steve Guest and Trump’s claim that “with Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.”
- Breitbart mentioned the CBS piece in reference to Trump’s tweet and his follow-up claim that “mail-In Voting is already proving to be a catastrophic disaster” in an article going after Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) for supporting vote-by-mail efforts.