President Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the security of mail voting are driving suspicion among GOP voters toward absentee ballots — a dynamic alarming Republican strategists, who say it could undercut their own candidates, including Trump himself.
In several primaries this spring, Democratic voters have embraced mail ballots in far larger numbers than Republicans during a campaign season defined by the coronavirus pandemic. And when they urge their supporters to vote by mail, GOP campaigns around the country, are hearing from more and more Republican voters who say they do not trust absentee ballots, according to multiple strategists. In one particularly vivid example, a group of Michigan voters held a public burning of their absentee ballot applications last month.
The growing Republican antagonism toward voting by mail comes even as the Trump campaign is launching a major absentee-ballot program in every competitive state, according to multiple campaign advisers — a delicate balancing act, considering what one strategist described as the president’s “imprecision” on the subject.
"It's very concerning for Republicans," said a top party operative who, like several others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing Trump's ire. "I guarantee our Republican Senate candidates are having it drilled into them that they cannot accept this. They have to have sophisticated mail programs. If we don't adapt, we won't win."
The president, however, has been arguing the opposite. Nearly daily in recent weeks, and usually on Twitter, Trump has attacked mail balloting, leveling many unsubstantiated allegations. He has claimed without evidence that it will lead to widespread fraud and that foreign governments will try to dump millions of forged ballots into U.S. elections. He has accused Democrats of using the pandemic to expand mail balloting for political gain.
“Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history — unless this stupidity is ended,” the president tweeted late last month. “We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!”
Veteran Republican campaign operatives, who note that the party has long had strong absentee-ballot programs in states including Arizona and Florida, have cringed at such comments.
"It does reduce the likelihood of Republicans embracing this process," said a senior GOP strategist. "Especially for older, more rural voters, that could be important for Republicans getting out the vote in 2020. I don't want 'I will not vote by mail' to become a political statement. But it may be too late."
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the president is critical of universal mail balloting, not the kind of absentee voting available only to a narrow group of qualified voters, such as older voters or those out of the country on Election Day.
"What the president is talking about is efforts on the Democrats' part to weaken the integrity of our elections," Murtaugh said.
However, in 29 states — including Florida, where Trump himself voted by mail this year — there is no such distinction. Any voter is allowed to cast a ballot by mail.
Justin Clark, a senior Trump campaign adviser, said "people don't give voters enough credit," saying they are able to separate what the president is saying about absentee ballots vs. mass voting by mail.
"The president is absolutely right when he says vote by mail is less secure," he said, adding about Trump's stance: "I haven't seen any data or evidence that it is dampening voter turnout."
The campaign has launched what another adviser, Chris Carr, called an "aggressive" effort to get voters to cast ballots by mail, including direct contacts with those who have voted absentee in the past and a successful test run in a recent California election.
The president's message "doesn't mean we don't push absentee in a state that allows it," Carr said.
The challenge for Republicans is particularly acute because the pandemic has dramatically changed the way voters are casting ballots — with mail-voting rates in some states rocketing from below 10 percent in previous elections to upward of 70 percent in this year’s primaries. A Democratic advantage is emerging in those turnout numbers.
In Virginia, 118,000 voters applied for absentee ballots for Democratic primaries June 23, while only 59,000 voters did so for the Republican primary — even though Republicans voted in a statewide Senate primary contest, while Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., was unopposed for his own nomination.
Mail voting also soared in Kentucky's June 23 primary; only about 10 percent of Democratic votes were cast on Election Day, while 20 percent of GOP votes were.
Similarly, in Georgia's June 9 primaries, about 600,000 voters cast mail ballots in Democratic primaries, while about 524,000 did so in Republican contests, according to the Georgia secretary of state's office.
"It's a legitimate question whether or not the president's rhetoric changes voter behavior on the Republican side," said Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "I think there's some evidence to suggest that it has."
Some of the surge in Georgia and Kentucky can be attributed to increased overall enthusiasm on the Democratic side; Democrats turned out in larger numbers than Republicans in Georgia, for instance, with 1.2 million votes compared with just under 1 million.
But the trend line concerns Republicans at a time when efforts to expand voting by mail for the fall are the subject of court battles around the country.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in late May, a sharp partisan divide has emerged over whether to make it easier for people to cast an absentee ballot, with 87 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Republicans saying it should be easier.
Democratic and Republican campaigns alike have long sought to “bank” votes before Election Day — amassing as many votes as early as possible, whether at early-voting sites or through absentee ballots. That way, a sudden turn of events — such as an economic collapse or a surge in coronavirus infections — is less likely to dampen turnout.
If Republican candidates lock down fewer votes than Democrats, they are more susceptible to the whims of Election Day — long lines, closed polling locations and the possibility that their voters decide to stay home.
And anti-mail-balloting sentiment has recently been cropping up in races around the country.
Last month, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, posted a simple message for her Facebook followers, exhorting them to vote in the next day's primary and offering a link with "information on how to return your absentee ballot," a process Iowa made easier to reduce the risks of coronavirus infection.
Not everyone welcomed the suggestion. "I will be voting, in person, for you," wrote one supporter. "Senator, I can't believe you'd support absentee ballots," wrote another. "We need in-person voting with ID or no voting at all."
Other Republicans officials are encountering similar pushback.
In Texas, Republican officials have offered a nuanced argument in opposing a Democratic push to allow anyone who fears coronavirus infection to vote absentee, saying the law limiting the practice to those out of the country, with disabilities or 65 and older should remain in place.
"The truth is, we don't have the infrastructure in place right now to accommodate universal mail-in ballots," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a recent interview with a Fox station in San Antonio that he posted on Facebook.
But dozens of commenters on Cornyn's post declared that the entire system is risky. One supporter said "there is no way" to safely vote by mail. Another said "STOP THE MAIL IN BALLOTS." Yet another described mail balloting as the "easiest way to cheat that I know of with the exception of crooked election judges stuffing the ballot boxes."
Spokesmen for Cornyn and Ernst declined to comment on whether they were worried that such sentiments will discourage Republicans from casting ballots by mail.
In perhaps the most dramatic sign of Republican skepticism about mail balloting, the campaign of one Republican senator seeking re-election this year recently sent a text urging roughly 100,000 to apply for absentee ballots — and received hundreds of negative replies, according to a person familiar with the responses.
One text said, "No thank you. I'll vote in person." Another said, "Absentee ballot? Nah. I'll be there in person. No one should legitimize this mail in voting hogwash."
In Michigan, where Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson decided to mail a ballot request form to every voter in the state, many Republicans have reacted negatively.
"I don't want you sending a ballot application with my name on it to somebody else who could do something bad with it, and then I show up on Election Day, and I'm not allowed to vote," said Joel Freeman, the chairman of the Kent County Republican Party in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Such concerns prompted one local activist, Michael Farage, to organize a protest June 13 in Grand Rapids, at which he and about 100 others burned their ballot applications before television cameras.
"I believe there is shady business going on," Farage said in an interview.
In fact, Michigan's absentee-ballot application is available to download on the secretary of state's website. Both parties have distributed the forms to supporters. To falsify an application, someone would have to know a voter's full name, address and birth year and forge that voter's signature. A Benson spokesman said such attempts have been rare.
Top Trump campaign officials and their conservative allies are discussing how to ensure GOP voters are receptive to their efforts to get them to vote absentee in the fall.
Conservative activist and Trump ally Leonard Leo is among those who have argued that Republicans need a "voter education" effort to teach them how to cast their ballots by mail, according to people familiar with his views.
"You have to educate the base about how to do it, how to get their ballot, when they have to mail it in by," said one GOP operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. "You've probably got to start that outreach earlier than you normally do."
Carr and Bill Stepien, another top Trump campaign aide, are among those on the task of building an absentee-ballot "chase" program, according to people familiar with their roles.
Such efforts typically involve a series of contacts with voters, including text messages and social media ads urging them to apply for a ballot, as well as follow-up texts, phone calls and in some cases door knocks to urge them to turn in their ballots.
In some states that publish daily lists of the names of voters who have requested absentee ballots — as well as lists of those who have turned their ballots in — the operations can be even more sophisticated, with campaigns able to winnow their list of targeted voters and narrowly focus their resources on the ones who haven’t yet acted.
"We may not always agree on what is handed down from a governor. Even if we don't like it, we are going to work within the rules," Carr said. "We are going to work within the law and execute successfully."
"The messaging changes by state and the particular state's rules," he added. "But I'm confident our people are going to show up."
But even as the campaign works to expand absentee balloting among its supporters, the president's rhetoric attacking the practice is unlikely to subside, a former senior administration official noted.
Trump regularly rants about voter fraud and mail ballots in the Oval Office, this official said — and will continue to do so until Election Day because “one, he truly believes it, and two, it gives him an out if he loses.”