early and often

Republicans Are Dead Set Against Early Voting (Unless It Helps Them)

Mail ballots: a necessary evil for Republicans? Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

You sometimes get the idea from Donald Trump and his supporters that “convenience voting” — voting by mail, early in-person voting, third-party mail-ballot collections, same-day voter registration, and other ways to make it easier to exercise the right to self-government — is an evil leftist scheme to steal elections. As The Federalist’s Ben Weingarten recently put it:

Democrats largely developed and long fought for this system, willing it into existence under the cover of Covid-19. Naturally, they have successfully manipulated and exploited the voting regime they made.

Sometimes Republicans allege that anything other than in-person voting, with ID, on a single day, using paper ballots, is inherently fraudulent, as Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence. Other times they simply suggest such practices are corrupt, in that they enable voting by people too uninformed or unmotivated to get off their butts and go to the polls on Election Day like their more responsible (and likely conservative) fellow citizens. A good recent example of the latter argument came from University of Buffalo political scientist James Campbell, who charged Democrats with practicing 19th-century-style “machine politics” to mobilize voters in 2022:

[The outcome] was not about national conditions or issues, or about candidate quality or internal party divisions, and not about either Biden or Trump. The expectations of a Republican wave reflected public opinion, but their surprising fall from those expectations was not about public opinion at all. It was about the campaign system — the combined elements of mobilization-friendly and early mail-in balloting, large campaign organizations to gather the votes, and an enormous amount of money.

Whether they call it crime or corruption, Republicans’ sinister interpretation of convenience voting as a largely contemporary, partisan scam is highly ahistorical. Voting from a distance is at least as old as the massive balloting among U.S. troops in the Civil War. And early voting began to pick up steam long before COVID-19, often in Republican-controlled states, as The Conversation explains:

In the 1980s, Texas offered its voters early voting in person. The number of states adopting early voting periods began to surge in the 1990s and included Florida, Nevada, Georgia, Tennessee and Iowa. After the 2000 presidential election and the controversy over “hanging chads,” many more states adopted early in-person voting periods to help with election administration.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission reports that in 2016 more than 41% of all ballots nationwide were cast before Election Day — with in-person early voting making up 17%, and voting by mail 24%, of all turnout.

Identifying mail voting solely with Democrats is also off, as the National Vote at Home Institute observes:

Utah moved to an all vote-by-mail system in 2019. It had previously shown success at the county level before being rolled out statewide. In both Montana and Arizona, over 70% of voters are automatically mailed their ballots as “permanent absentee” voters. In North Dakota, >40 counties vote entirely by mailed-out ballot as do 11 counties in Nebraska. In both cases, their turnout numbers are far above polling-place centric counties in their respective states. Alaska recently conducted their first statewide election using this method, which Anchorage had used successfully for a prior municipal election. Many states with predominantly vote-by-mail systems have elected secretaries of state and other officials who are Republicans — and big fans of this process.

Even if Republicans don’t acknowledge the bipartisan legacy of convenience voting, most of today’s GOP recognize that demonizing it has placed the party at a competitive advantage. That recognition extends to Trump, who most aggressively attacked voting by mail in 2020 as part of a plan to claim victory based solely on votes counted first on Election Day, as CNN reported in March:

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.”

This is almost the same line we’re hearing from Trump’s strongest 2024 rival, Ron DeSantis, who is governor of a state where Republicans have long been confident about their ability to compete with or beat Democrats in early voting. Last October, DeSantis encouraged Republicans to take advantage of early voting opportunities, as ABC News reported:

“If you wait till Election Day, you get a flat tire, you can’t take a mulligan,” DeSantis said then. “Whereas if you vote early, you do it, you’re in the can. If something happens [while you’re on your way], you got another shot at it.”

And like Trump, DeSantis is now endorsing “ballot harvesting,” which Republicans have previously treated as almost always fraudulent. (In reality, it involves the collection and delivery of signed and sealed mail ballots, not, as is often implied, unused mail ballots being filled out and cast, which is a felony crime virtually everywhere.) “I’m not going to fight with one hand tied behind my back,” he recently told an Iowa audience.

To be sure, Republicans have not become convenience voting enthusiasts. As the New York Times observed last month, GOP legislators continue to restrict early voting opportunities wherever they have the power to do so:

The first recent wave of legislation tightening voting laws came in 2021, when Donald J. Trump’s false claims of voter fraud spurred Republican lawmakers to act over loud objections from Democrats. Two years later, a second wave is steadily moving ahead, but largely under the radar.

Propelled by a new coalition of Trump allies, Republican-led legislatures have continued to pass significant restrictions on access to the ballot, including new limits to voting by mail in Ohio, a ban on ballot drop boxes in Arkansas and the shortening of early voting windows in Wyoming.

The idea is to exploit convenience voting wherever Republicans can’t stop it or roll it back. This two-track strategy is striking; GOP politicians are still treating anything other than in-person Election Day voting as corrupt, while urging their party and their voters to eagerly adopt those same allegedly corrupt practices for their own benefit. As The Federalist’s Weingarten succinctly concludes:

Only by competing and winning under a rotten system rewarding the kind of organizing and action historically anathema to conservatives will there ever be an opportunity to dismantle that system.

It’s clearly a matter of having it both ways.

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Republicans Are Against Early Voting (Unless It Helps Them)