Many states are planning on drastically different elections this year and mail-in ballots could be a big game changer.
WASHINGTON — As the Republican Party county chairman in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, Rohn Bishop isn’t just working to get President Donald Trump reelected by again carrying the Badger State.
He has his eyes down-ballot where Republicans in his mostly rural county are fighting to hold on to a congressional seat and reclaim a pair of state Senate seats. Amid a raging pandemic, that means encouraging the Republican base to request mail-in ballots for the November election.
But Bishop said he’s encountered a recurring problem: Many Republican voters are “skittish” aboutvoting by mail. He pointed to strong anti-vote-by-mail rhetoric from Trump, who regularly assails mail voting as fraudulent and an attempt by Democrats to “rig the presidential election.” Just this week, Trump tweeted that mail-in voting will lead to the “most corrupt election in our nation’s history!”
Bishop fears it’s putting Republicans at a disadvantage.
“What the president is doing when he keeps saying that this mail-in balloting thing is fraudulent, he’s scaring our own voters from using a legit way to cast your ballot,” Bishop said. “We’re kind of hurting ourselves, and I don’t think that’s the wisest way to go.”
As Trump continues his crusade against mail voting, Republican state parties in critical battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin aren’t amplifying the same message. Instead, they’re promoting voting absentee as a reasonable option if the pandemic continues in full force into the fall. Their success in convincing their supporters could have a dramatic effect on the election’s outcome, given the small margin of Trump’s victory in 2016.
The Pennsylvania Republican Party’s website, for example, includes a page dominated by a visual that reads, “Vote Safe: By mail. From home.” . The page explains why voting by mail is safe and that getting a ballot sent to their home “is easy.”
The efforts are in concert with the Trump campaign, which asked state parties to encourage voters to request mail ballots, party leaders in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin confirmed.
But some state party officials said they’ve had to work around Trump’s messaging as they seek to match what they believe is an edge Democrats have with mail-in voting.
“I’m out their pushing it at the request of the campaign, because they asked me to do that, and then the president publicly is opposed to it,” Republican Party of Pennsylvania chairman Lawrence Tabas said.
“I understand his point. I don’t like mail-in balloting,” Tabas said, insisting the president is referring to states that don’t have “security measures and protections” like Pennsylvania. But he added: “It’s a legal option. The Democrats outdid us (in mail-ballots in the June 2 primary), and if something happens in November and our people haven’t applied, it could be an issue.”
He said it can require some convincing.
“I tell people, ‘Look, you might as well apply for it. You don’t have to vote by mail, but have it in case the governor or somebody pulls a last-minute stunt and that’s the only way that you can vote.'”
Trump’s distinction on absentee, mail-voting causes confusion
Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are among 34 states that offer absentee ballots to all voters without needing an excuse. The coronavirus threat qualifies as a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot in most of the other 16 states.
Trump and Republicans have sought to draw a distinction between absentee voting – offered to seniors, the military, disabled people and others who are unable to vote-in person on Election Day – and universal mail-in voting, where ballots are mailed to all registered voters. Only six states utilize universal mail-in voting.
Trump and his allies have said he only opposes the latter, but the president is often unclear in his tweets. According to election experts, absentee and mail-in voting are fundamentally the same thing – voting from home.
In Florida, another critical swing state that has no-excuse absentee voting, the state Republican Party this month sent mailers that featured a strategically scrubbed Trump tweet to encourage voters to request mail ballots, Politico reported. In yellow, the ad highlights Trump saying absentee voting is OK but edits out a portion of the same tweet where the president rails against mail-in voting.
“Absentee Ballots are fine. A person has to go through a process to get and use them,” the portion of Trump’s tweet featured in the ad says. But the ad blurs out the rest of Trump’s remarks. “Mail-In Voting, on the other hand, will lead to the most corrupt Election is USA history. Bad things happen with Mail-Ins. Just look at Special Election in Patterson, N.J. 19% of Ballots a FRAUD!”
Florida Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, downplayed the editing, saying the party omitted the second half of the tweet because it was “irrelevant to the situation we have in Florida.”
“When the president’s talking about it, he’s talking about a lot of the issues they have nationwide,” Gruters said, adding that the party is “100% lock-step with the president” that universal vote-by-mail is bad and fraudulent. He argued that’s different from Florida, where any voter can request an absentee ballot for any reason. “We took what was relevant to us and used it so there’s no need to confuse our own voters.”
Asked whether Trump’s criticism of vote-by-mail has turned off some Republican voters to voting absentee, Gruters said he did not: “It’s just a matter of making sure people understand the difference between universal and absentee.”
Florida Democrats this month touted a 423,379 vote-by-mail enrollment advantage over Florida Republicans. Florida Republicans, who have historically dominated mail-voting in the state, did not dispute the figure, but pointed to their own numbers showing “10 million voter contacts.” Gruters said 1.27 million Republicans have requested mail ballots for November
Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager in a statement didn’t address concerns that Trump’s criticism of vote-by-mail could discourage absentee-voting among Republicans. She instead said Trump is “absolutely correct” when it comes to concerns about universal vote-by-mail, calling it a “brazen attempt by the Democrats to rig the November election.”‘
Only Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon Utah and Washington historically conduct elections entirely by mail, with a sixth state, California, choosing to send ballots to all voters this November because of the pandemic. Among the 34 states that allow no-excuse absentee voting, several have opted to send applications to request mail ballots to all registered voters as a way to encourage at-home voting during the pandemic. In-person voting also is still available in these states, but many cut the number of polling sites during recent primaries.
‘We need to stop complaining’
Months ago, vote-by-mail expansion became a rallying cry for Democrats nationally, from Michelle Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden down to local progressive groups.
Confidence in mail-in voting is divided among partisan lines.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found 78% of Trump supporters see mail-voting as “vulnerable to fraud” and just 17% view it as “adequately protected.” Conversely, among Biden supporters, only 28% said mail-voting is vulnerable to fraud and 54% said it is sufficiently protected.
Despite Trump’s warnings, the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law said it’s more likely for an American to “get struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud.” Out of billions of votes cast across all U.S. elections from 2000 to 2012, one analysis found only 491 cases of absentee voter fraud.
Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to get Republicans elected in state legislatures, said “everyone should be concerned about voter fraud.” But his party “must do a better job” of making sure Republicans understand they must vote even if that means by mail.
“At the end of the day, our job is to win elections,” Chambers said. “And if people are going to be voting by mail, then we’d better do everything in our power to get them to understand that voting by mail is certainly better than not voting at all. So we need to stop complaining about how people are going to vote and start reminding people that they need to go vote, regardless of how they’re going to be casting their ballots.
An election watchdog believes the boards of elections in New York have acted in an “appropriate, measured way” to ensure proper counting of primary ballots. “It takes time to get it right,”Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York said. (July 23)
“Our job is to not bitch about the process. Our job is to win elections.”
In Michigan, applications to request mail ballots for both the general election and August primary went out to all 7.7 million registered voters – a move made by the state’s Democratic secretary of state that Trump blasted in May even while several Republican-led states did the same during primaries.
In Michigan, 1.8 million voters requested mail ballots for the state’s Aug. 4 primary and more than 600,000 have returned their ballots, though the data isn’t broken down by party. So far, 1.6 million mail ballots have been requested for the November election in Michigan.
Michigan Republican Party chairwoman Laura Cox, who opposed mailing absentee request forms to all voters, said the party still is encouraging Michigan Republicans to vote by mail if they choose. A mailer the party sent to voters before the state’s March presidential primary included absentee applications, and they are planning to promote the option for November. She said using the party’s private dollars to mail applications is a “big difference” than the state doing it.
“We want our voters to know that if life gets in the way and they can’t get to the ballot box that day, or if they are fearful, they don’t feel comfortable, then they have absolutely the right to request an absentee ballot,” Cox said.
“The bottom line is the rules aren’t fair but we’re going to play by the rules that were given.”
Cox said she hears from a lot of Republicans who “don’t feel confident with the process,” fearing, for example, their ballots won’t be received. Still, Cox said she’s “not worried” that Republicans might be more reluctant to request mail ballots than Democrats.
‘It’s making my job more challenging’
Previewing what to expect in November, states across the country shattered mail-in voting and overall turnout records during state primaries held since the pandemic started.
Pennsylvania, which voted last fall to become a no-excuse absentee voting state, saw 1.5 million people vote by mail for its June 2 presidential primary – nearly 18 times the 84,000 who did in 2016, accounting for more than half the overall 2.87 million votes.
“Let’s put it this way: It’s making my job more challenging,” Tabas, the Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman, said of Trump’s rhetoric on vote-by-mail. “I have to explain why … especially since I don’t disagree with him in large part, but it’s the law. That ship has already sailed.”
Reluctance among Republicans to request mail-in ballots could present a problem for the GOP if the pandemic intensifies in battleground states in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
But Tabas said he’s not worried about it hurting Trump’s changes in Pennsylvania where he said Republicans would “walk over coals” to vote for Trump. “Even if there’s consolidation of the polls, even if there are risks because of the COVID, they will come out,” he said.
During Wisconsin’s April presidential primary, mail-in voting made up 74% of the overall vote, with nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots cast. For the state’s Aug. 11 state primary, the state mailed 734,000 ballots upon request and had received 203,000 back as of Wednesday.
Some 700,000 Wisconsin voters have already requested mail ballots for the November election. In response to the pandemic, the state in September will send applications to Wisconsin’s remaining 2.64 million registered voters who have not already requested an absentee ballot.
“It’s a part of our strategy,” Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said of getting Republicans to vote by mail. He said the party will have mailings, phone calls and digital messaging aimed at urging Wisconsin Republicans to cast their ballot by mail, and the party intends to send absentee ballot applications directly to voters.
“Our voters have been slightly more reluctant,” he acknowledged. But he said he doesn’t believe Trump’s resistance to mail-voting is “much of a challenge” in terms of outreach because voters understand the distinction between absentee and all-mail voting.
“We’re doing this in conjunction with the president’s campaign, and they’re supportive of our efforts. So we’re singing under the same hymnal,” Jefferson said. “But we’re all skeptical of all mail-in elections and what that does.”
He said some Republicans are “going to resist” and vote in-person on Election Day but he’s not concerned as long as in-person voting options aren’t dramatically reduced.
‘I don’t like it, but it’s the rules’
But Bishop, the Fond du Lac County Republican Party chairman, said the issue is more serious than the party establishment acknowledges.
“A lot of the inside Republicans, who understand politics and electioneering and work in the infrastructure, they’ll whisper to me that I’m right but they don’t want to say it publicly because there’s a backlash,” Bishop said.
He said voters in the “most Trumpy towns” in rural parts of his county lack the nearby early voting sites like the state’s big Democratic cities have. He believes mail-in voting is a way for Republicans “to offset the Democrats’ early-voting advantage.” But not if they don’t take advantage.
“I think the president, not only is he hurting himself with his position, I’m terrified he’s hurting down-ballot Republicans. I think in Wisconsin, it’s going to be close, and I want to make sure all Republican voters are able to vote.”
He said most of the feedback he gets from Republicans “on the ground,” through email, social media and conservative talk radio, is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that he’s ignoring the threat of voter fraud.
Bishop said he counters that “there’s actually no evidence that there’s more fraud with the mail-in balloting than the regular balloting.” They rebut with examples of people getting caught cheating, to which Bishop tells them, “You’re kind of proving my point. We caught them.”
“I try to go through it and why I think it can actually help us, but it’s not like a 30-second answer. It takes me 10 minutes for me to explain it all and try to get people to understand why I’m pushing for it.”
He framed it to fellow Republicans this way: Why give Democrats 10 days to vote by casting ballots by mail and Republicans just one day in-person on Election Day?
“It’s kind of like instant replay in baseball,” Bishop said. “I don’t like it, but it’s the rules, so the manager of the baseball team better play by those rules and try to figure out how to win the baseball game. It’s the same with the campaign.”
Maureen Groppe contributed to this report.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
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