While President Donald Trump claims mail-in voting is ripe for fraud and “cheaters,” his reelection campaign and state allies are scrambling to launch operations meant to help their voters cast ballots in the mail.
Through its partnership with the Republican National Committee, Trump's campaign is training volunteers on the ins and outs of mail-in and absentee voting and sending supporters texts and emails reminding them to send in their ballots. In Wisconsin, where a special congressional election is scheduled on Tuesday, the Trump campaign last week blasted out a reminder via Twitter: “Request an absentee ballot by 5 pm TONIGHT.”
In another election, the message might have been viewed as standard get-out-the-vote work. But in the age of the coronavirus, it points to a problem for Republicans: How do they follow Trump's lead and oppose mail-in voting without falling behind Democrats who are embracing the practice as the safest way to vote during a pandemic?
The Trump campaign's answer is to continue to promote mail voting options, even as it casts doubt on some of the ways it is practiced. The campaign says it specifically draws a line at all-mail elections, where every voter automatically receives a ballot. That practice is “an invitation for fraud,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh contended in a statement.
States with all-mail votes have not reported significant fraud.
“While we strongly disagree with the ill-intended Democrat push for more mail-in ballots, we have an obligation to our voters to inform them of what the law is in their state and what their options are," Murtaugh said.
That position comes amid signs that Republicans may be at a disadvantage when it comes to making sure their voters who feel unsafe in a polling place have easy access to mail-in options.
Democrats ran a robust absentee ballot operation in last month’s statewide election in Wisconsin, handily winning a hotly contested Supreme Court race. The party is now looking to replicate its operations in a series of June primaries with an eye on November. Meanwhile, several officials in Democratic areas have decided to make absentee voting easier. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced Friday that the state’s 20.6 million voters will be mailed ballots before Election Day.
But battleground Wisconsin has the center of the debate. The Republican-controlled legislature blocked switching last month's election to an all-absentee ballot contest, sparking long lines as voters waited to get into the few polling stations that could remain open in heavily Democratic Milwaukee and other cities.
Since then, Milwaukee officials decided to send absentee ballot requests to all of its registered voters. Another Democratic-leaning city, Racine, has followed suit. GOP voters, however, are scattered in smaller communities across the state, and the state legislature hasn't approved sending absentee ballot requests statewide.
The discrepancy alarms some Republicans. “Knowing that everyone in Milwaukee is going to get a ballot, but not everyone in Brookfield is, that’s a significant disadvantage,” said Stephan Thompson, a veteran GOP operative, referring to a bedrock Republican suburb of Milwaukee.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Pennsylvania, another top presidential battleground. Democratic-dominated Allegheny County, centered on Pittsburgh, is sending absentee requests to all its voters for next month's primary. Republican-leaning counties haven’t taken similar steps — though the state party and its partnership with the RNC have been urging GOP voters to use absentee ballots in the primary.
John Koons, Pennsylvania director of the Trump Victory Leadership Initiative, last week tweeted a picture of the envelope his ballot arrived in. “Don’t miss out on the chance to #LeadRight and request your mail in ballot at http://vote.gop!” he wrote.
Still, when the state party urged its voters on Facebook to use mail ballots, it was deluged with angry comments about enabling voter fraud.
“We have to be careful that we’re not so critical of the process that, if that process is in place, we’re potentially suppressing our own vote,” warned John Brabender, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist running several races in states that have shifted to mail.
Polling indicates that Trump’s public complaints about mail voting have turned some Republicans against the practice. An AP-NORC poll late last month found increased backing for mail balloting, but Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to oppose all-mail elections.
“Does this set us back in the minds of conservative voters and Republicans? Yes,” Dustin Zvonek, a Republican strategist in Colorado, who argues Republicans can benefit from mail balloting, especially in local races.
Still, the Trump campaign says it will be competitive in all forms of voting — using the same tactics as four years ago. That includes urging voters to request an absentee ballots and mail it in early as a way to bank votes early and free up resources on Election Day.
“We will have a full get-out-the-vote operation designed to replicate the success we had in November of 2016,” said Anna Kelly, a Trump campaign spokeswoman in Wisconsin, specifically including the tactic of “absentee ballot chase.”
Trump in March complained about mail ballots — “they're cheaters” — and took aim at the practice of ballot harvesting — when third-party groups are allowed to collect large numbers of sealed mail ballots and send them in. There is no evidence of widespread mail-in voting fraud.
Trump also criticized Democrats’ unsuccessful efforts to mandate mail voting in federal legislation. “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” Trump said.
In some states like Florida, Republicans have long dominated mail voting. Brabender said the process may give Democrats an edge in the Rust Belt states where Democratic voters are clustered in a handful of large cities and Republicans in smaller towns.
“In big cities where you’d have lower turnout, you can drive up” the share of voters, Brabender said, But, he added, there’s nothing wrong with that, and increased remote voting is inevitable.
“I assume we are smart enough as a party to study this and figure it out,” Brabender said.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.