After years of claiming mail-in voting is rife with fraud, some Republicans – including former President Donald Trump – are working to reverse course ahead of next year’s consequential presidential and congressional elections.
Trump, now waging his third White House bid, told attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month that it’s time to “change our thinking” on early and mail-in voting. And in speeches and fundraising emails, he’s touting his campaign’s plans to encourage “ballot harvesting,” the practice of allowing third parties to collect and turn in other voters’ ballots. His party, he said, has “no choice” but to beat “Democrats at their own game.”
That’s a stark reversal for a politician who last November issued an all-caps declaration on his Truth Social account alleging, in part, “YOU CAN NEVER HAVE FAIR & FREE ELECTIONS WITH MAIL-IN BALLOTS – NEVER, NEVER, NEVER.”
The change in tone and message reflects the view among party strategists that Trump’s relentless and false claims about election fraud in 2020 and the harsh GOP rhetoric about a form of voting used widely in key battleground states, such as Arizona, contributed to the party’s disappointing midterm results. And they fear it could endanger GOP hopes of capturing the White House and other offices next year.
“It’s a Republican-created problem among Republicans,” said Paul Bentz, a GOP pollster in Phoenix.
A majority of GOP voters in Arizona still cast ballots early, he said, but a “sizable portion has shifted their behavior back to voting in person at a polling place on Election Day.”
Trump, he said, has “effectively suppressed a portion of his own base of support.”
Republican officials around the country now are scrambling to figure out how to change voters’ attitudes before the 2024 election cycle kicks into high gear. A Republican National Committee review of the midterm elections is expected to focus, in part, on ways to encourage early balloting among the GOP faithful. And in Pennsylvania, a presidential battleground state that saw Democrats make gains in the midterms, state GOP officials recently launched several committees to explore ways to catch up to Democrats’ mail-in voting advantage.
“Any party that votes for 50 days is going to beat the party that voted for 13 hours. It’s just that simple,” Andy Reilly, the Republican National Committee member from Pennsylvania, told CNN. He sits on some of the new state GOP committees focused on encouraging mail voting.
Swaying the chief skeptic
Ahead of the midterms, some Republicans voiced worries that Trump’s continued rhetoric around mail-in voting and election security would discourage Republican turnout and cause them to lose critical elections.
Multiple allies had warned Trump that Democrats had an infrastructure in place and that bad-mouthing mail-in voting would put Republicans at a disadvantage, but he doubled down on his claims of rigged elections and massive fraud.
In the end, the GOP underperformed in the midterm elections – failing to flip the US Senate, winning only a narrow majority in the US House of Representatives and toppling just one Democratic governor in an election set against high inflation and low poll numbers for the Democrat in the White House.
“What we do need is our voters need to vote early,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, a Trump ally, said during an interview on Fox News last December on the same day that Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock won reelection in Georgia, cementing his party’s Senate majority. “I have said this over and over again. There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early.’ And we have to stop that.”
In the months since the midterms, Trump allies and advisers said that the former president has remained fixated on his claims around the stolen election but has been persuaded to change his public rhetoric.
“He doesn’t believe that the losses in 2022 had anything to do with the election denialism talk, no matter how many people tell him,” one source close to Trump told CNN. “It’s because he still listens to the people who say the base cares about it.”
Since the midterms, close advisers studied state laws and presented Trump with research on how Democrats were working within the system and using mail-in voting and third-party ballot collection to their advantage, as well as a plan showing Republicans were capable of doing the same to help them win the 2024 election.
“The message [to Trump] was, ‘If we don’t do it this way, we’ll never win,” one Trump ally familiar with the conversation told CNN.
Noticeably, Trump has also tamped down his lengthy public rants on the 2020 election – something his advisers had begged him to do since before the midterms.
His rivals also have thrust the voting issue to the forefront.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, the first Republican to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination, publicly has called on the party to embrace early and absentee voting. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition after the midterms, she argued that Republicans “sat on our hands” in the election while Democrats racked up early votes.
And in remarks at the same event, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – who is widely expected to enter the GOP presidential primary later this year – urged his party to pursue “ballot harvesting” in states where it is allowed.
Bentz, the Arizona pollster, said failing to bank votes in advance puts Republicans at a strategic disadvantage because it forces them to “babysit” their likely voters through Election Day to ensure they cast ballots – rather than deploying those resources to turn out infrequent voters or win over undecided ones.
And it’s a risky tactic if bad weather or other problems crop up on Election Day. Several Republican candidates in Arizona complained last year that their voters had been disenfranchised after printer problems arose at several polling locations on the final day of voting in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county and home to Phoenix.
Local officials have said the Election Day problems did not bar anyone from lawfully casting ballots, and judges so far have rejected efforts to overturn last year’s results. (Later this month, the Arizona Supreme Court is set to decide whether it will take up a last-ditch election challenge from the 2022 Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, who lost to Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs by roughly 17,000 votes out of more than 2.5 million cast.)
A partisan divide
More than half the states – including key presidential battlegrounds such as Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia – allow no-excuse mail-in voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But Democrats have surged ahead of Republicans in using this method. In 2020 – as opportunities to vote remotely mushroomed during the height of the pandemic – nearly 60% of Democrats voted by mail, compared to just 32% of Republicans, according to survey data analyzed by Charles Stewart, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab.
Both parties had posted similar rates of mail voting in 2016 and 2012.
In Pennsylvania, which saw Democrats retain the governor’s office and flip a Republican US Senate seat last year, the Democrats’ mail advantage in the midterms was stark.
The Republican nominee, Dr. Mehmet Oz, outperformed Democrat John Fetterman in Election Day balloting. But Fetterman, the victor, received more than 960,000 mail-in votes to Oz’s roughly 234,000, state records show.
Stewart of MIT said some Republicans have left “a very powerful set of tools on the table” for some time by not encouraging mail-in voting. At the same time, a chorus of conservative grassroots activists have demanded in-person voting on a single day and other changes to election procedures, echoing the distrust of the system voiced by Trump and others who claim the 2020 election was stolen.
“The whole narrative associated with voting in person has so thoroughly infiltrated into the Republican Party that it’s going to take a lot to change the view of Republicans at this point,” Stewart said.
Some of mail-in voting’s most ardent critics have begun to come around – albeit grudgingly. Among them: Doug McLinko, a local Republican official in Pennsylvania, who was the lead plaintiff in one of the GOP lawsuits that sought, unsuccessfully, to overturn the state’s 2019 law that established no-excuse mail voting.
McLinko, who helps oversee local elections as part of the Bradford County Commission in northeast Pennsylvania, said he believes most voters should cast their ballots in person on Election Day, which he argues demonstrates true engagement in democracy. “People shouldn’t be allowed to lay in bed and eat Tostitos and do a mail-in ballot,” he told CNN.
“I’m not stupid. We’re going to have to learn to do it,” McLinko said of mail voting. “…We will beat the bushes and try to get in every mail-in ballot.”