The same week President Donald Trump told the public that voting by mail is “corrupt” and “ripe for fraud,” his own party was sending a very different message to Republican voters in Pennsylvania.
“Voting by mail is an easy, convenient and secure way to cast your ballot,” read a mail piece the Republican National Committee distributed across the Keystone State. “Return the attached official Republican Party mail-in ballot application to avoid lines and protect yourself from large crowds on Election Day.”
Despite the president’s rhetoric, state party leaders across the country are aggressively urging their voters to cast ballots by mail, GOP officials confirm. In addition, Republican officeholders in at least 16 states that do not have all-mail elections are encouraging people to vote absentee during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a tally by The Washington Post.
Among them are the Republican governors or secretaries of state in Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire and Iowa, who announced in recent days that they would allow widespread voting by mail in upcoming elections.
Their moves come after decades in which Republicans have encouraged their voters to take advantage of absentee ballot rules, running sophisticated mail programs that targeted GOP supporters most likely to vote from home.
The apparent conflict between Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting and his party’s long embrace of the tactic comes as the health crisis has spurred Democrats and civil rights groups to push to loosen restrictions on mail voting in many jurisdictions.
“Republicans like mail voting when it’s used by people with second homes,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and former Democratic National Committee chairman, “but not by people with second jobs.”
Republican officials say there is no dissonance between the president’s rhetoric and what’s happening on the ground. They say Trump opposes all-mail elections in which every registered voter is sent a ballot by mail, as well as the practice of ballot “harvesting,” where third parties are allowed to collect completed ballots from voters and turn them in. Both are too susceptible to fraud, they say.
“There is a very obvious difference between requesting an absentee ballot when you will be unable to vote in person versus automatically mailing every registered voter a ballot,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “Sending everyone a ballot opens up wide possibilities for ballots to be intercepted, for ballots to be stolen from mailboxes, or for vote harvesting to occur.”
Trump, who voted absentee in Florida’s primary last month, said he did so “because I’m allowed to,” adding that he was at the White House and therefore out of state. He compared that with what he claimed were “thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room signing ballots all over the place.”
Experts said that mail balloting creates a risk of fraud by loosening the chain of custody of ballots, but they noted that such episodes are rare. The most prominent recent example came in a 2018 congressional race in North Carolina, when a GOP operative was charged with felonies as part of a ballot-tampering operation that is still under investigation.
States with extensive mail-balloting systems have enacted safeguards such as signature requirements that make such fraud virtually nonexistent, according to Republican and Democratic election officials.
Democrats and civil rights advocates say Trump and his party are trying to undermine confidence in voting by mail and suppress turnout even as they encourage their own voters with well-oiled mail operations.
They say some of the restrictions Republicans want in place will have a disproportionate effect on minority communities and young people – an intentional effort, they say, to suppress turnout among voters who tend to vote for Democrats.
“The Republican Party has now said, from the president down to the speaker of the Georgia Assembly, that they cannot win elections if everybody votes,” said Marc Elias, a District of Columbia-based election lawyer for the Democratic National Committee. “So they are desperate to ensure that voter turnout is low among young voters and minority voters.”
The clash shows how both sides are hoping to gain advantage as the coronavirus upends the political calendar – a dynamic that voting advocates worry could interfere with the ability to find consensus on safe voting practices amid the pandemic.
Republicans have a long history of persuading their voters to cast ballots by mail. Haley Barbour, the former RNC chairman and Mississippi governor, said the party’s vote by mail operation “long predated” his tenure at the party’s helm, from 1993 to 1997.
The effort was intended to boost turnout among GOP voters who might prefer to vote from home, such as seniors. Republicans have been especially successful in states, including Florida, where their voters have embraced the option.
About a third of the states allow mail balloting only with an excuse, with some granting excuses to groups that lean heavily Republican, such as the elderly.
In the face of the coronavirus, Republican officials in many states are now loosening some of those restrictions. In West Virginia, Idaho, South Dakota and Nebraska, for example, GOP election officials are proactively mailing registered voters absentee ballot request forms.
“Basically, if you feel more comfortable voting absentee because of the outbreak or your inability or nervousness about just appearing in person to vote, you can vote absentee and obtain an absentee ballot,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, as he announced Thursday that the state will allow voters to cite the virus as an excuse to cast a mail-in ballot in November.
Democrats and some voting experts say some Republican officials are finding ways to curtail mail-in voting to their benefit.
One central point of dispute is whether to mail ballots to all voters – or only those who request them.
Republicans argue that voting rolls are wildly inaccurate in some states, including dead people, duplicates or voters who have moved. Mailing a ballot to every registered voter, they say, would open up the risk of ballots falling into the wrong hands and being fraudulently filled out.
“States should resist proposals that open the door to voting fraud, such as mailing ballots to voters who haven’t asked for one,” said Justin Clark, senior political adviser to the Trump campaign.
Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida, said a ballot request system means “essentially you have to register if you wish to vote, before every election.” He also said it is unfair to punish voters for poorly maintained voting rolls.
In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, announced last month that he would send a mail ballot application to every voter – but only to active voters, not all registered voters. The plan was developed in coordination with Trump’s reelection committee, according to a campaign official.
That approach means applications will not go to those who have not voted or responded to official election contacts in five years. That will exclude about 300,000 of Georgia’s 7.2 million voters, according to state data. Of those, 24% are 30 and under and 40% are nonwhite.
“It’s a way to try to shape the electorate,” McDonald said.
Raffensperger has emphasized blocking fraud rather than increasing access. At a news conference last week, he announced the formation of an “Absentee Ballot Fraud Task Force” with prosecutors and other law enforcement to ensure that the expansion of mail balloting does not lead to more fraud.
The task force, Raffensperger said, will “investigate every signature mismatch that remains uncured, interview voters with unaccounted for multiple votes from the same address, and construct the rules around investigating nonresidential addresses being used as registration addresses.”
Lauren Groh-Wargo, the former campaign manager for 2018 Democratic gubernatorial contender Stacey Abrams, said such efforts are likely to intimidate voters and suppress participation in mail balloting.
“They’re talking about criminalizing a mismatched signature,” said Groh-Wargo, who now leads the Abrams-founded voting-rights group, Fair Fight Action. “This is why voter suppression is so insidious. You knock on 10 people’s doors in a neighborhood because their signature didn’t match. Nothing will likely come of it, but in the meantime, people get charged with misdemeanors or felonies, and it spreads virally that voting by mail is risky.”
Raffensperger’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In his announcement, the secretary of state said: “Those who wish to take advantage of us in these troubling times, and undermine the strength of democracy in Georgia, should be forewarned. Actions that delegitimize the integrity of the vote in Georgia will not be tolerated.”
The parties are also sharply divided about whether to federally mandate uniform vote-by-mail standards for all the states – a proposal championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. In an interview, Klobuchar said that at the very least Congress must come up with more money to help states avoid chaos as millions more Americans prepare to vote by mail.
“You have a number of Democratic and Republican elected officials across the country, and there are exceptions of course, that want to do vote by mail,” Klobuchar said. “And they want funding for vote by mail.”
But GOP officials have resisted any funding that comes with requirements about how to run a vote-by-mail program, citing the potential for fraud.
The partisan tensions were evident Thursday during a conference call organized by Klobuchar for the media to hear from eight secretaries of state.
Two Republicans – Kyle Ardoin of Louisiana and Mac Warner of West Virginia – voiced concerns that a ramp-up of universal voting by mail would make their states vulnerable to election fraud.
“You have to trust those local officials who say, ‘I don’t want to expand opportunities for misuse of the election process,’ ” Warner said. “And we’ve got that situation here in West Virginia. I don’t want any of the buying of votes. I don’t want assistance made easier for people to allow others to help them vote, and so forth.”
That drew a blistering rebuke from Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, who called her state’s all-mail election system “the securest in the nation.”
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver urged election administrators to avoid such arguments, saying they only serve to further divide Americans and undermine faith in elections.
“This is not the time or place for us to be breaking down among each other along partisan lines,” she said.
Much of the debate focuses on the risk of ballot harvesting, which is illegal in many states.
After the operation uncovered in the 2018 congressional race in North Carolina, lawmakers passed major election-law reforms in the state, including a stringent requirement that voters obtain two witness signatures before mailing their ballots.
Democrats and state election officials, who supported the new rule at the time, now want to roll it back, saying the pandemic threatens voter access. Republicans, who control the legislature, have so far refused – and accused Democrats of trying to enable the type of fraud that infected the 2018 contest.
“The concern I have is that if what you’re doing is something that lessens the confidence in the result of the election, then I think we need to be very careful about going in that direction,” said North Carolina Senate President Phil Berger, a Republican.
Elias, who is leading Democratic Party efforts in court to roll back restrictions on voting by mail, acknowledged that third-party ballot collection is among the DNC’s goals. The party is also seeking free postage, the opportunity for voters to fix a rejected ballot, and rule changes in states that require ballots to be received by Election Day to instead allow them to be postmarked by that day.
Elias said the election is likely to be won or lost on the margins, meaning those kinds of rules will matter. Postage, for instance, becomes an issue for lower-income voters or young people unaccustomed to using the mail. The right to fix a ballot for a missing or mismatched signature is important to guard against unfair practices or untrained poll workers, he said.
Democrats have sued over these rules, winning in Florida and securing a settlement in Georgia to assure the right for a ballot “cure.” Elias said he is preparing litigation in a number of additional states now that mail balloting is likely to become more popular.
State Democrats have already filed suit in Texas, where voters must have a reason such as disability, age or travel to vote by mail, and where Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has resisted calls to expand mail balloting.
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The Washington Post’s Scott Clement, Emily Guskin and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.