The Republican stance on vote-by-mail is fractured

May 25, 2020, 8:29 PM UTC

As primaries around the country continue through the summer and the federal elections in November rapidly approach, vote-by-mail ballots or all-mail systems have become an increasingly popular idea to prevent voters from unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus. 

After Wisconsin’s in-person primary in April led to an increase in infections, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom issued orders allowing anyone in-state to be mailed a ballot to vote-by-mail. Other states, like Nevada and Michigan have also eased regulations. 

But President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee have been outspoken in their distrust of vote-by-mail.

“The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots. It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history,” the President tweeted on Sunday evening. “People grab them from mailboxes, print thousands of forgeries and ‘force’ people to sign. Also, forge names. Some absentee OK, when necessary. Trying to use Covid for this Scam!”

Earlier in the week the President threatened to “hold up” federal funding to Michigan and Nevada because of the state’s plans to increase vote-by-mail in order to reduce large groups of people gathering during the global pandemic. 

“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted about Michigan. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” The President later reneged and said he would not withhold funding, but he reiterated that he didn’t believe states had the legal power to mail ballots to all voters. 

On Sunday, The Republican National Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, and California Republican Party filed a lawsuit against California governor Newsom and secretary of state Alex Padilla calling the governor’s order to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter an illegal “usurpation of the legislature’s authority” to plan the “time, place and manner” of the election.

“This brazen power grab was not authorized by state law and violates both the Elections Clause and Electors Clause of the U.S. Constitution,” read the complaint. 

“Elections and the right to vote are foundational to our democracy,” wrote Newsom in a statement about his executive order. “No Californian should be forced to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote.”

The governor acknowledged that mail-in wasn’t a “perfect solution for every person, and I look forward to our public health experts and the Secretary of State’s and the Legislature’s continued partnership to create safer in-person opportunities for Californians who aren’t able to vote by mail.”

According to a recent USA Today/Suffolk poll, about two-thirds of all Americans support voting-by-mail as a safe alternative to in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 34 states already have some form of “no-excuse” absentee ballot which allows them to request and receive ballots by mail. Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington hold all elections by mail, and about three quarters of votes are by mail in Arizona, California, and Montana.

In reality, vote-by-mail fraud is exceedingly rare in the United States. The right-leaning Heritage Foundation maintains a database of all recent instances of recorded voter fraud and found just 204 reported cases involving the fraudulent use of absentee ballots over the past 20 years— only 143 resulted in convictions. That means that over the last two decades, about 0.00006% of total vote-by-mail votes cast were fraudulent—far from the rampant manipulation that the President often describes. 

In April, right-leaning legal group The Public Interest Legal Foundation released a report that the President often cites stating that more than 1 million ballots sent out to voters in 2018 were undeliverable, which they called a “catastrophe” for the vote-by-mail system. A ProPublica investigation, however, found that the organization had doubled official government numbers, and PILF later corrected the report to show that the number of ballots rendered undeliverable actually dropped between 2016 and 2018. 

The President also often points to what he calls widespread voter fraud in Florida in 2018, but the state, under Republican governor Ron DeSantis, wrapped up a 17-month election last week where they concluded that there had been no evidence of wrongdoing or fraud

The President has very little legal authority in determining when and how each state votes, but that hasn’t stopped him from voicing his opinion—often to the confusion of his own party. 

While it appears to be common wisdom that Republicans oppose voting by mail because it hurts them in elections, that’s not necessarily the case. A recent study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that voting-by-mail initiatives leave both major parties on equal footing. The concept, the study concluded, was fairly bipartisan. Some studies actually found that vote-by-mail aided Republicans as younger, female, and minority voters are less likely to return their ballots

A number of Republican secretaries of state have encouraged voting-by-mail including Georgia, Kentucky, and West Virginia. President Trump voted by mail in the Florida primary this year, and the Republican National Committee sent voters in Pennsylvania letters this week encouraging them to vote through mail-in ballots, calling the method “convenient and secure.”

While the official Republican stance on vote-by-mail is fractured and mixed, Trump’s consistent messaging about rampant fraud does work to seed distrust in the sanctity and outcomes of the November elections, whatever they may be.

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