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Trump’s crusade against vote by mail could backfire on Republicans

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  • Trump escalated his crusade against absentee voting by threatening to withhold federal funds from two states, Michigan and Nevada, for making it easier for their citizens to vote by mail. 
  • But Trump’s war against vote by mail and his false claims that it leads to fraud could hurt Republicans, and his own prospects, in November.
  • Some state and local Republican officials are reporting that Trump’s rhetoric is making it harder for them to convince their own voters to turn out. 
  • There is no widespread evidence for Trump’s claims that expanding vote by mail or increased voter turnout automatically benefits Democrats, meaning he could be unintentionally hurting his own chances.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump kicked his crusade against absentee voting and vote by mail up a notch by threatening to withhold federal funds from two states, Michigan and Nevada, for making it easier for their citizens to receive their ballots by mail. 

In his first tweet, he wrongly claimed that the Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (who he called “rogue”) was sending every registered voter an absentee ballot, an act he called “illegal,” and he threatened to cut off funding off to the state. As clearly marked on the evenlopes, the state hadn’t mailed out actual ballots but instead applications for those ballots. Several hours later, Trump deleted his initial tweet, and then doubled down to claim–also falsely–that the act of sending absentee request forms was illegal. 

As Benson explained in a Wednesday interview with Insider, Michigan voters approved a ballot initiative in 2018 to amend the state’s constitution to allow absentee voting without an excuse, meaning its entirely legal for her office and county clerks to mail applications to voters. 

“Everyone has the authority to mail applications to registered voters in our state, and the application is even available on our website,” she said. “We did this in our May 5th local elections as well, and both political parties and numerous advocacy and nonpartisan groups do this ahead of every election.”

Trump also went after Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who is a Republican, of sending out “illegal vote by mail ballots” and “cheating” by mailing every registered voter a ballot for the state’s June 9 primary elections. The president also threatened to cut off all federal funding to the state.

As Cegavske’s office noted in a statement to Insider: “Secretary Cegavske lawfully declared the 2020 primary election as a mail-in election. In a recent court order, a federal judge ruled that Secretary Cegavske lawfully exercised authority granted to her by state law to call for a primary election conducted primarily by mail ballot.”

Contrary to Trump’s claims, all voter fraud, and especially fraudulent use of absentee ballots, is exceedingly rare. Not only is Trump wrong on the facts and the law in both states, but his crusade against vote by mail could end up undermining his own party’s chances in November. 

FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2016, file photo, mail-in ballots for the 2016 General Election are shown at the elections ballot center at the Salt Lake County Government Center, in Salt Lake City. As President Donald Trump rails against voting by mail, many members of his own political party are embracing it to keep their voters safe during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

In this Nov. 1, 2016, file photo, mail-in ballots for the 2016 General Election are shown at the elections ballot center at the Salt Lake County Government Center, in Salt Lake City. As President Donald Trump rails against voting by mail, many members of his own political party are embracing it to keep their voters safe during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Associated Press


Trump’s war on absentee voting is making it harder for Republican officials and Trump’s own campaign to get out the vote

John Pudner, a former Republican campaign strategist and executive director of conservative campaign finance policy nonprofit Take Back Our Republic, told Insider he supports vote by mail as long as states can still require a valid alternative method of identification, like with mandated signature matching and a witness signature on every ballot.

“I would share Trump’s worries if the office were sending out actual ballots, but the application itself is a misguided concern,” Pudner said. “I do have concerns about fraud, but it wouldn’t be from applications.” 

While Trump specifically went after the Democratic Secretary of State of Michigan, Benson noted in her interview with Insider that her Republican counterparts in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska, Indiana, and West Virginia are also embracing expanded vote by mail and have mailed absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter in their  primary elections. 

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump’s tweets about Michigan “caught several campaign advisers by surprise, including Republican National Committee chair and former Michigan state party chair Ronna McDaniel, as well as campaign manager Brad Parscale,” while other advisers “said they viewed his attacks on Michigan in particular as unwise, given internal GOP polling showing he is trailing in the state.”

As Trump publicly rails against vote by mail, Trump’s own campaign and the RNC are working overtime in multiple states to educate Republicans on how to vote absentee in their state, and are sending texts and mailers reminding them to send in their ballots, the Associated Press reported.

Despite their on-the-ground-efforts, anecdotal evidence shows that Trump’s ardent opposition to absentee voting is hurting Republicans down-ballot.  

Reuters recently reported that in Pennsylvania, which has no-excuse absentee voting and is holding its primary on June 2, 70% of the absentee ballot requests so far have come from registered Democrats despite Democrats only having a 55% to 45% registration advantage in the state. 

“It’s a real problem and could be really troubling come November,” one county-level Republican party chairman told Reuters, adding that his supporters “simply don’t trust the process, and the president’s comments have not helped things, for sure.”

 

In Kentucky, which is allowing all voters to vote absentee without an excuse for its June 23 primary, the Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams told NPR that he had his “head taken off” by fellow Republicans just for sending registered voters a postcard outlining their options to vote. 

“The biggest challenge I have right now is making the concept of absentee voting less toxic for Republicans,” he told the outlet, adding that “it’s partly on me because I talked about it in my campaign.”

And n Wisconsin’s chaotic April 7 elections, where a Democratic candidate for the state’s Supreme Court handily defeated the Republican incumbent, The New York Times reported that rural Republican voters and county clerks had difficulty voting absentee. 

“While Republicans encouraged early and absentee voting, many elderly either did not have the wherewithal to request absentee ballots or the inclination to vote in person on April 7,” said the Republican Party chairman in Monroe County. “They were confused, afraid and decided to stay home.”

As the University of California election law professor Rick Hasen wrote in a Wednesday Washington Post op-ed: “Why would Trump voters jump through extra hoops to vote by mail if they believe, as the president is telling them, that the system is rife with fraud? The voters Trump is hurting is his own.”

Pudner compared Trump to “the boy who cried wolf” in spreading panic and ultimately undermining faith in the process over states simply sending out application forms. 

“It’s just a bad message for anyone to say, ‘We’re the party trying to stop you from mail-in voting,'” Pudner said. “In a world of soundbites, it makes outreach harder and it’s really not a winning election message from a PR standpoint.” 

People are seen casting their votes during the elections. Election Day voting on the Upper West Side in New York City. (Photo by Michael Brochstein_SOPA Images_LightRocket via Getty Images)

People are seen casting their votes during the 2018 elections, New York City, New York, on November 6, 2018.

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images


Expanding vote by mail does not substantially benefit either party 

Trump has also falsely claimed that expanding absentee and vote by mail would hurt GOP candidates, saying in March that a Democratic coronavirus stimulus package that would have massively expanded early and absentee voting “had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

There is no widely accepted evidence to support Trump’s claims that increased voter turnout automatically benefits Democrats. A new working paper from Stanford University, for example, found that counties in California, Utah, and Washington saw modest increases in voter turnout across the board but no clear partisan advantage for either political party when they switched to holding elections almost entirely by mail.

As political scientist Lee Drutman recently summed it up for FiveThirtyEight: “Voting by mail is more convenient for some voters but more difficult for others, and these conflicting factors appear to cancel each other out, dampening any partisan advantage. Moreover, the vast majority of nonvoters don’t participate not because it’s too inconvenient to vote, but because voting isn’t a habit for them.”

He added: “Maybe they don’t care about politics, maybe they don’t think their vote matters, maybe they don’t like any of the candidates, or maybe it’s some combination of all of the above. But the bottom line is that these voters’ decision to vote depends more on whether somebody around them can motivate them to vote, not whether they are able to vote by mail or in person.”

In multiple states that Trump won in 2016, a quarter or more of the electorate cast ballots by mail, US Census Data show. In both Arizona and Utah, 68% of voters cast ballots by mail, 58% did so in Montana, 27% of voters cast ballots by mail in Florida, 25% in Iowa, and 24% in Michigan, the target of his ire on Wednesday. 

In many states where the electorate skews older, like Arizona and Florida, the GOP heavily relies on mail-in ballots. As one Republican strategist told NPR, “absentee ballots are typically Republicans’ friends in Florida.”

In March, Trump, now a resident of Palm Beach, voted by mail in the state’s Republican presidential primary election, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

And in such a close election, having Democrats promote absentee voting while the leader of the GOP decries it as fraudulent and unsafe could have real impacts on the margins. 

“In Florida, Trump won senior voters 57% to 40% in 2016,” Pudner noted, citing CNN exit polls. “If you have a five percent drop in seniors voting because they’re scared of in-person voting and think vote-by-mail is fraudulent, that’s damaging.”

The Stanford study and other papers have found small increases in turnout for states and counties that expanded vote by mail. But even if expanding absentee voting did vastly increase turnout, the available evidence about non-voters doesn’t support Trump’s assertion that higher voter turnout would automatically benefit Democrats. 

A 2019 New York Times Upshot meta-analysis of voter file, census, and polling data from registered voters in swing districts found that the prevalent assumptions that non-voters would back Democrats if they turned out to vote may not hold in 2020, partly because of college-educated voters swinging to Democrats and white, non-college educated voters overwhelmingly backing Trump.

As The Times noted, non-voters and especially Americans who aren’t registered to vote at all are chronically under-represented in public opinion surveys, making it difficult to gauge how they would vote. 

A February 2020 survey on 12,000 non-voters conducted by the Knight Foundation found that while non-voters narrowly lean Democratic as a group and in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin by one and two percentage points respectively, they favor Trump by greater margins in other battleground states.

But The Times’ polling of voters in 2018 battleground districts and estimates based on voter file data found that Trump’s approval ratings were nearly the same among voters and non-voters, suggesting that non-voters aren’t necessarily more anti-Trump than those who did cast ballots. 

The Times said that while Democrats saw the upper limits of how an increase in voter turnout could benefit them in the 2018 midterms, white, working-class voters who did not vote in 2018 are “likeliest to return to the electorate in 2020, and it could set back Democrats in crucial battleground states.”

As Nate Cohn, an Upshot reporter and the author of the 2019 article, remarked on Twitter on Wednesday: “One of the odd things about the Trump effort to suppress absentee mail voting is that it’s totally conceivable to me that higher turnout would help him in these Midwestern states, where the kind of lower turnout and less educated voters who sat out the midterms probably tilt-GOP.”

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