As Republicans try to shake off their loss in Georgia’s Senate runoff, the final election in a midterm election cycle where they fell far short of their own expectations, the soul searching has begun. And among many of the party elite, one idea in particular is gaining traction: the GOP war on voting by mail was a strategic blunder.
“One of the first lessons we have to take from the midterms is the power of early voting,” tweeted conservative firebrand Charlie Kirk last month. “We simply have to beat them at this VBM game,” added Blake Masters, who lost a bid to oust Arizona’s Democratic Senator, Mark Kelly. And on Wednesday former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called on his party to embrace mail ballots after Herschel Walker’s defeat in Georgia, where Republicans passed a restrictive voting law last year that made it harder to vote by mail.
While debates over GOP messaging and candidate quality are likely to drag on for months, many of the party’s leading voices are publicly coming to grips with a self-defeating strategy of putting all their eggs in the Election Day basket. Yet there remains a considerable obstacle standing in the way of conservatives changing course: The most influential figure on the American right remains vehemently opposed to voting at any point before Election Day.
“REMEMBER, YOU CAN NEVER HAVE FAIR & FREE ELECTIONS WITH MAIL-IN BALLOTS,” former President Donald Trump posted on his social media platform Truth Social last week. “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. WON’T AND CAN’T HAPPEN!!!” The next day, he added to the thread: “NEVER!”
The diverging takeaways reflect an internecine dispute now roiling the Republican Party. A growing number of GOP bigwigs believe that Democrats gained a competitive advantage in the last two election cycles by going all-in on vote by mail, whereas Trump and some of his allies are doubling down on baseless claims that mail ballots are rife with fraud, one of the core falsehoods behind Trump’s insistence that Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election.
It will be a daunting task for the newfound reformers to sway their fellow conservatives. Most of today’s Republicans are deeply suspicious of mail ballots. According to a December 2021 survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts, 19% of Republicans supported making vote by mail a permanent option for all voters, compared to 84% of Democrats. That same poll found the top two reasons that Republicans felt Biden’s win was illegitimate were because of fraudulent ballots that were counted and mail ballots that were cast for dead people—unsubstantiated claims that have been spread by right-wing influencers and through the debunked documentary 2,000 Mules.
“This narrative has just been repeated and repeated to that audience,” says Natalie Stroud, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched Americans who believe Trump really won. “I think it would be very difficult for them to change their mind, because that has been the reason why they think the election turned out the way that it did—that there’s so much potential for fraud in mail-in balloting.”
It will be even harder for those Republicans, she adds, if Trump, who has already launched a 2024 presidential campaign, continues to amplify and feed that perception. “When you have intra-party division and messaging, it just divides the party itself.” Stroud says. “So that’s a very tricky one, if he sticks to the same narrative.”
“You don’t expand the problem!”
The mixed messaging in recent days provides an early glimpse into the GOP’s fault lines as it reckons with its strategy over mail voting. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the nascent campaign for the Republican National Committee chair, where two of the leading candidates are contradicting Trump by embracing vote by mail.
“Our voters need to vote early,” Ronna McDaniel, the current party chairwoman who’s facing multiple challenges and a backlash from the party’s populist base, told Fox News on Tuesday. “There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early,’ and we have to stop that and understand that if Democrats are getting ballots in for a month, we can’t expect to get it all done in one day.”
McDaniel’s most formidable opponent is a former vote-by-mail skeptic who now recognizes its value: Harmeet Dhillon, an RNC committeewoman and conservative attorney who helped Trump with his legal efforts to contest the 2020 election.
“I’ve come around to the view that, where it is legal, Republicans need to be voting as early as possible, and getting their votes and banking their votes, just like the Democrats do,” Dhillon tells TIME, ticking off the advantages: “It actually helps predict where you need to go to chase the ballots better. It lessens the anxiety around Election Day, it decreases the risk that things like snow, rain, inclement weather will suppress the vote. It decreases the chances of things like long lines in voting that affected a lot of Republicans in Arizona on Election Day, which I saw with my own two eyes. And, you know, it’s convenient.”
National Democrats have credited their ground operation, which was designed to turn out their voters through early voting, with helping them to triumph in 2022. During early voting, parties and campaigns can use data released daily by counties on which voters have cast ballots to surgically target those who have yet to vote, especially low-propensity voters. “In Maryland, if you didn’t turn in your mail ballot, you got harassed with phone calls and knocked on doors and everything,” says John Willis, a former Maryland Secretary of State and top adviser to Democrat Wes Moore’s successful campaign for Maryland governor.
In other words, it’s a system that gives campaigns an edge at turning non-voters into voters. And while vote by mail does not inherently advantage Democrats or Republicans, many suspect it has boosted Democrats over the last two elections simply because they seized on the opportunity while their opposition squandered it.
According to data assembled by the left-leaning analytics firm Catalist from four days before Election Day, registered Democrats in three swing states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan—outvoted registered Republicans by 59% or higher during the early vote period.
Dhillon, who lives in San Francisco, says she always preferred voting on Election Day but cast an absentee ballot in the last two elections. She’s grown more comfortable with the method because of barcodes on the ballots that allow voters to keep track of them. “I’m satisfied that my vote was counted,” she says. “They send you a text message when your ballot is received. They send you a text message when your ballot has been counted. So I’m fine with it. And I think that we have to compete to win.”
Meanwhile, Mike Lindell, the founder and CEO of MyPillow who played a significant role in trying to help Trump overturn the 2020 election, is mounting a long-shot bid to head the party. He wants to get rid of mail ballots completely. “Absolutely not, hell no!” Lindell told TIME when asked whether Republicans should rethink their strategy on voting by mail. “You don’t expand the problem!”
Another McDaniel critic who weighed a run for RNC chair but ultimately opted out is walking more of a tightrope. Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York doesn’t want the party to push for expanding mail voting—but he also doesn’t think Republicans should fight the system where it’s already in place.
“States shouldn’t be passing laws to allow ballot harvesting or no-excuse absentee balloting, Zeldin, who lost an election for New York governor last month, told TIME. “But wherever states decide to do it anyways, Republicans need to do it better than Democrats and make those Democrats deeply regret legalizing those methods in the first place.”
Ballot harvesting is a pejorative term for when political operatives collect absentee ballots from voters’ homes and deliver them to a polling place, drop box, or election board. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states allow voters to authorize someone else to return their ballot on their behalf, but many of those states have firm rules about who voters can entrust with the process. In most of the swing states where Democrats had their most significant 2022 wins, ballot harvesting is illegal. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, only the voter can return their own ballot; in Arizona and Michigan, only a family, household member, or caregiver can do it for them.
Those states, and most others, also use signature verification technology to ensure that the signature on each mail ballot matches the one of their voter registration, a process that confirms that every ballot counted is legitimate.
How Trump politicized mail ballots
Before 2020, vote by mail had supporters and detractors in both parties.
Republicans looked at states that spearheaded vote by mail, such as Oregon and Washington, and saw that it appeared to increase turnout most strongly among young people and people of color, who lean heavily Democratic.
At the same time, Democrats saw that no-excuse absentee ballots were popular with rural conservatives in perennial swing states places like Florida and Ohio. Then, in 2014, Colorado held its first universal vote-by-mail election, in which every registered voter automatically receives a ballot in the mail. Registered Republicans outvoted registered Democrats, according to a 2017 study commissioned by the Washington Monthly, and Republican Cory Gardner eked out a narrow victory for an open U.S. Senate seat.
That ambiguity of the data partly explains why left-leaning advocacy groups were slow to champion vote by mail over other voting reforms, like same-day voter registration and making Election Day a national holiday, before the pandemic, even though it had a much stronger record of turning out voters. In 2018, for instance, every vote-at-home state had a turnout rate at least 10 percentage points higher among eligible voters than the national average.
But the debate around mail voting changed with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, when states relied more on absentee ballots to prevent polling places from becoming vectors of contagion. Trump responded by relentlessly undermining the voting method, even as his own advisers tried to convince him that mail voting was secure and well-liked by Republicans. Both his campaign manager Bill Stepien and son-in-law Jared Kushner feared that Trump’s castigating mail ballots risked suppressing turnout among his own supporters, according to testimony shared with the Jan. 6 committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Indeed, 46% of Americans voted by mail in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, which found Biden voters were nearly twice as likely as Trump voters to do so.
An effort by the GOP to once again embrace vote by mail could be especially meaningful in Arizona, a conservative-leaning state where more than 70% of voters have voted by mail since the 1990s, but where Biden won in 2020 and a slate of Trump-endorsed candidates were routed last month, including the breakout MAGA star and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who lost by roughly 17,000 votes.
“If there was one fundamental mistake for Republicans in Arizona, it was telling everyone to vote on Election Day, don’t trust the mail with your ballot, that kind of thing,” an adviser to Lake, who requested anonymity to speak freely, tells TIME.
The source cited several ruby-red rural Arizona counties, such as Cochise, Pinal, Mohave, and Yavapai, where turnout was lower than in previous midterm general elections. While statewide data on early voting is not yet available, officials in Cochise County shared with TIME that Republican turnout during early voting was 2% lower compared to 2018.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Lake delivered a more nuanced message at her rallies. While making clear her preference for Election Day voting, she told her supporters who received mail ballots to vote whichever way they chose. In fact, even her sister Jill told TIME that she voted by mail, per Lake’s suggestion.
Those caveats notwithstanding, some in her inner circle suspect it was too little, too late, given her earlier emphasis on flooding the polls on Election Day, and the fact that Trump had spent the last two years demonizing mail ballots. “It makes it harder to cheat,” he told the thousands of MAGA faithful gathered under the Mesa sun in October, encouraging them to vote on Election Day.
“Kari ultimately said, ‘Just make sure you get it in, however you want.’ That was her message the last six to eight weeks,” the Lake source says. “But that wasn’t the main message for a long time. It was: ‘Do it on Election Day. You can’t trust the mail. You can’t trust them with your ballot.’ And, well, look what happened.”
Arizona isn’t the only place where Trump-allied Republicans are rethinking their approach to mail voting. GOP leaders in Pennsylvania are second-guessing themselves, too. And the issue is sure to be a major area of focus for a panel commissioned by the RNC to review their lackluster 2022 performance, which includes Dhillon and Masters and other Republican heavy hitters.
It’s far from clear, though, whether the party apparatus, intent on reversing a two-year trend line, could overcome a divergent message from Trump, especially if he’s on the top of the ticket in 2024.
“It’s fortunate for Democrats that Republicans didn’t encourage their people— particularly their low-propensity voters—to vote by mail,” Phil Keiseling, a former Democratic Oregon Secretary of State who pioneered its mail-voting system in the 1990s, tells TIME. There wasn’t an “arms race,” he goes on, between each of the parties trying to get as many of their voters to vote as early as possible.
“But if Republicans catch on,” Keisling adds, “it may not be that way the next time around.”