In a deeply cynical move, President Donald Trump has attempted to convince Republicans to oppose expanding vote-by-mail options during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is essential for all Americans to be given the option to vote by mail in upcoming primary elections and the November general election, given that in the United States, the pandemic has already infected more than 784,000 people, resulting in more than 42,000 deaths. Seemingly without concern for the public’s health, Trump has cravenly claimed that if more Americans cast votes by mail, fewer Republicans will win elections. As the Center for American Progress Action Fund recently addressed, Trump’s goal of suppressing voters to boost his chances of reelection also includes his bogus claim that voting by mail leads to fraud. Despite Trump’s arguments, the real-world facts show that voting by mail does not disadvantage either major political party and is extremely popular with Americans across the political spectrum. Moreover, many Republican state officials disagree with Trump and are taking steps to expand voting by mail to help protect the health and safety of their voters.
Republican officials nationwide disagree with Trump’s partisan arguments
On April 8, 2020, Trump asserted on Twitter, “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.” A week earlier, Trump attacked vote-by-mail reforms proposed by congressional Democrats, saying, “They had levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Trump’s attempts to unify Republicans to oppose voting by mail have not yet succeeded. In part this is because voting by mail is not a recent occurrence: Republicans—especially at the state and local levels—have been part of a movement for decades to support mail-in balloting, according to former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. As experts have noted, “At its inception, vote-by-mail was championed by Republican and Democratic leaders alike. Washington’s former Republican secretary of state, Sam Reed, was for years the nation’s most prominent advocate for the reform.”
At this point, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., allow some form of voting by mail, with five states voting almost exclusively by mail. These states include the traditionally Republican Utah, as well as the perennial battleground state of Colorado. And voting by mail is trusted among military personnel serving overseas: Hundreds of thousands of them cast mail-in ballots in each election.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many top Republican state officials who are responsible for administering elections have continued to support voting by mail, despite Trump’s partisan warnings. According to The Washington Post, “Republican officeholders in at least 16 states that do not have all-mail elections are encouraging people to vote absentee during the coronavirus pandemic.” Notably, this includes governors or secretaries of states in multiple presidential battleground states, including Ohio, New Hampshire, and Iowa, who all announced recently “that they would take steps to encourage widespread voting by mail in upcoming elections.”
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu told his constituents, “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.” In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) lauded voting by mail, saying, “It’s a great way for people to be able to vote … I’d encourage people to take advantage of that.” And Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) urged “all voting Idahoans to request their absentee ballots as soon as possible so they can vote from home this year.”
States that traditionally elect Republicans, such as West Virginia, Idaho, and South Dakota, are loosening requirements and proactively mailing registered voters absentee ballot request forms, instead of requiring voters to request an absentee ballot. Other states where top Republican officeholders recently either voiced support for voting by mail or approved new rules to make it easier include Ohio, Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Trump’s attempts to stoke partisan fears about expanded mail voting are seen as unhelpful. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) lamented such falsehoods, saying that because of them, “the public loses confidence in the foundational pillar of our system.” And Republicans in local office continue to support a vote-by-mail option. For example, the chair of the Berks County, Pennsylvania, Board of Commissioners, a self-described “conservative Republican,” wants his community to have the ability to vote entirely by mail.
Moreover, Republican “state party leaders across the country are aggressively urging their voters to cast ballots by mail.” In fact, during the week of April 6, 2020, the Republican National Committee sent a mailer to Republicans in the swing state of Pennsylvania explaining the benefits of mail-in ballots. Among other things, the Republican party mailer advised voters to avoid large crowds on Election Day and that “voting by mail is an easy, convenient and secure way to cast your ballot.” (bold on source)
A vote-by-mail option during the pandemic is popular, even with Republican voters
Recent public polls show strong support across party lines for voting by mail during the pandemic. An April 2020 public poll found that 72 percent of all American adults support voting by mail. This included 65 percent of Republicans, a sizable majority. Other recent national polls found Republican or conservative support for mail-in balloting at 58 percent and 54 percent, while a poll of Ohio voters showed 67 percent Republican support.
Voting by mail does not advantage one major political party over another
Researchers have repeatedly found that voting by mail does not give a meaningful advantage to either of the major political parties. A just-released study that analyzed data from 1996 to 2018 concluded that voting by mail does not have a discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate. And one noted expert in election law recently stated that voters who mail in their ballots appear to be “about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.”
Moreover, Republicans routinely win elections in states that have moved predominantly to voting by mail, whether at the federal, state, or local level. For example, Utah has elected Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, along with a Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. Colorado elected Republican Cory Gardner to the U.S. Senate, and Republicans have been elected to the other top statewide offices. Voters in Arizona, which overwhelmingly votes by mail-in absentee ballot, have traditionally elected Republicans to office, including former Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake and the current governor.
If anything, many Republican officials continue to believe that their party will benefit from vote by mail. The party is continuing its successful efforts to boost turnout among Republican voters who might prefer to vote from home, such as senior citizens. For example, Republicans have seen marked success in Florida, where voters use the mail-in ballot option in large numbers. Despite Trump’s attempts to turn Republicans against using mail-in ballots, Florida’s Republican Party chairman confirmed days ago that “the party will continue to run a robust vote-by-mail program.” One Florida Republican taking advantage of vote by mail: Trump himself.
Expanded mail-in voting, along with measures such as additional early in-person voting, same-day registration, and online registration, is a critically important option for all Americans during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Trump’s attempts to reduce support for vote-by-mail are not only dangerous, but they are also an unabashed partisan ploy to suppress voters who may not vote for his reelection.
Americans have the constitutional right to vote, and the health of the U.S. republic depends on people meaningfully exercising this right. People of color and other underrepresented communities continue to fight against efforts to suppress their votes. Attempts to disenfranchise voters—no matter their political affiliation—have no place in American democracy, especially during the ongoing pandemic. Instead, Trump should abandon his inexcusable partisan rhetoric and push for robust federal funding so that every American has the option to vote safely by mail.
Michael Sozan is a senior fellow on the Democracy and Government Reform team at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.