President Donald Trump has repeatedly said vote-by-mail could cost him re-election. Some Republican strategists think he’s right, but more because the president’s words risk scaring away his own voters than because of fraud.
Trump argues, without citing evidence, that mail-in balloting is open to manipulation, vulnerable to foreign forgeries and beneficial to rival Joe Biden. On Monday, Trump tweeted, without evidence, that “millions of mail-in ballots will be printed by foreign countries” and that the election will be “rigged” against him if voting by mail persists.
Experts say it would be extremely difficult to forge mail-in ballots given security measures in place in local and state elections offices.
But although research has shown that vote-by-mail gives no inherent advantage to either party, some Republican strategists say Trump’s repeated attacks are turning off GOP voters at a time when coronavirus adds risk to in-person voting, giving Democrats an opening to organize this fall.
Trump’s rhetoric comes as polls show him losing to Biden. As he resumed campaigning after a virus-prompted hold with Saturday’s Tulsa rally, Trump got his first indication that his campaign may be in trouble when 6,200 people showed up in an arena that holds 19,000.
Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon dismissed Trump’s accusations Monday night, saying the president and his allies were pursuing a “program of voter suppression.”
“Voters should have more options for voting, not fewer, and no American should have to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” she said. “That means expanding options for participation, including no-excuse absentee ballots, increased in-person early voting, and safe in-person voting on Election Day.”
As many states have expanded vote-by-mail, polls show a partisan gap for the first time, with Republicans much less confident in absentee ballots than Democrats. In one extreme example, some of the president’s supporters gathered to burn vote-by-mail applications at a protest near Grand Rapids, Michigan.
On Sunday, Attorney General William Barr repeated a claim that absentee ballots are open to fraud in an interview with Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”
“When government, state governments, start adopting these practices like mail-in ballots that open the floodgates of potential fraud, then people’s confidence in the outcome of the election is going to be undermined,” he said. “And that could take the country to a very dark place, if we lose confidence in the outcomes of our elections.”
A Quinnipiac University poll this month found that Republicans opposed mail-in ballots 73% to 23% and Democrats supported them 90% to 8%. Overall, 59% of Americans favored allowing all voters to vote by mail in November due to the coronavirus pandemic, 38% were opposed. Other polls show Republicans are now much less confident than Democrats that their own mail-in ballots will be counted.
Recent primaries show the divide between Democrats and Republicans over mail-in ballots may extend to how they actually vote.
In the key swing state of Pennsylvania, which began allowing no-excuse absentee voting this year, 1.3 million Democrats requested a mail-in ballot for the June 2 primary, nearly two-and-a-half times the number of Republican voters who did so.
Democrats also outpaced Republicans in absentee voting in Iowa’s primary that same day, and pulled even with Republicans in Georgia’s primary on June 9 after years of running behind.
Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in California, said the administration’s arguments are scaring everyday Republican voters away from using absentee ballots.
“He is disadvantaging Republican candidates and campaigns,” he said. “I don’t know any strategist that thinks it’s a good idea to be pooh-poohing vote-by-mail.”
Researchers who have studied vote-by-mail have found no evidence to support Trump’s assertion that it is rife with fraud or that more people using it would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
An April study by Stanford University found that in states that shifted to entirely vote-by-mail from 1996 to 2018, neither party gained in its share of either votes or turnout, even as overall turnout increased.
If anything, Democrats may face a disadvantage, as other research has shown that young, black and Hispanic voters – three Democratic-leaning groups — are more likely to have their mail-in ballots rejected by elections officials.
But the research doesn’t mean vote-by-mail can’t be decisive in a specific election.
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, a Republican who co-chairs VoteSafe, a bipartisan group advocating vote-by-mail, said that either party could gain an advantage on mail-in voting if they worked at it hard enough, especially if their opponent didn’t.
“It’s like blocking and tackling in football,” he said. “There’s certain things you can do to improve your performance. You want to get people to the polls, and if they can’t get there for a variety of reasons, you want to have safe and secure options. The party that realizes that does have an advantage.”
Ridge said Trump’s attacks are “counterintuitive” and out of step with campaign managers and grassroots organizers from his own party, and he worries that Trump may be affecting the views of Republican voters as well. Trump’s attacks have fueled a broader Republican effort to prevent voting by mail, including millions of dollars earmarked for lawsuits and advertising.
But it may already be too late to stop absentee voting on a wide scale in November. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot. Many other states have eased restrictions in response to the pandemic, leaving just four that currently require an excuse to vote absentee: Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. All have Republican governors.
Because of the pandemic, elections officials from both parties in several states have decided to automatically send every voter an application for an absentee ballot to make the process smoother. But when Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state announced she would do so, Trump harshly criticized her and threatened to pull federal funding from the state.
In Iowa, a similar effort by the Republican secretary of state in the recent primary led to more than 10 times the number of mail-in ballots as the state had in its 2016 primary, helping break a turnout record set in 1994.
But eight days later, the Republican-led state Senate passed a wide-ranging bill that would limit the secretary of state’s ability to send similar letters in future elections.
Vote-by-mail advocates say that efforts to restrict it will only add to the strain on in-person voting during a pandemic, as seen in the Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Georgia primaries, which saw long lines at polling places, problems with voting equipment and election worker shortages.
While Democrats worry that Election Day problems will hurt voters in big cities, Stutzman said Republican campaigns should also consider that a resurgence in the coronavirus could keep older Republican voters away from the polls on Election Day because they are more at risk from the virus.“If you haven’t already been banking these mail ballots, you run a huge risk of losing some of your vote,” he said.