GOP scrambles to organize early and mail voting despite Trump’s attacks

In December, Donald Trump called for the end of mail-in voting in presidential elections. In February, he told Michigan voters that “mail-in voting is totally corrupt.” He later told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that “if you have mail-in balloting, you automatically have fraud.”

“The ballots are a disaster,” he said earlier this month to British TV host Nigel Farage, without offering evidence and despite having voted by mail himself in recent elections. “Any time the mail is involved, you’re going to have cheating. It’s too bad people don’t say it. They don’t want to say it.”

That message is complicating plans by officials at Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee to orchestrate aggressive efforts in key battleground states to persuade voters to cast their ballots early and by mail. Party officials say the efforts are crucial to win the election.

In an interview, RNC Chairman Michael Whatley said the party would spend considerable money — he would not say how much — to encourage voters to vote by mail and help collect ballots, a practice known as ballot harvesting that is legal in some states but that Trump has decried.

“We’ve got to get every one of our voters to vote, no matter the method,” Whatley said. “We want people to use mail-in voting where it is legal. We want people to ballot harvest where it’s legal. We want to comply with the laws in every state.”

Trump advisers say their get-out-the-vote effort will include persuading people to vote by mail if they believe it is the method the person is likely to use based on their voting history, including making sure ballots are mailed to people who request them.

Whatley said he believed more than 50 percent of American voters would cast their ballots before Election Day. A record 69 percent of Americans voted by mail or voted early in 2020, according to the Census Bureau, though some of that was probably driven by the coronavirus pandemic. “We will be talking to those voters before they go vote,” he said.

Faith in voting systems has become polarized along partisan lines, thanks in no small part to Trump’s vilification of the system and his refusal to accept that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last year found that only 22 percent of Republicans had high confidence that votes in the 2024 presidential election would be counted accurately, compared with 71 percent of Democrats. Roughly 6 in 10 Republicans opposed allowing people to vote by mail without an excuse, versus only 13 percent of Democrats.

Republican officials privately say that whether Republican voters adapt to early in-person and mail voting could swing the 2024 election in closely contested states. But those efforts remain in tension with the fraud claims that animate Trump and the grass-roots MAGA movement.

Essentially, they are trying to persuade Trump voters to participate in voting methods that he falsely says are responsible for rampant fraud and cost him the White House four years ago.

“We hear it at the doors, some Republicans are still very reluctant now to drop their ballots in the mail,” said Jon Seaton, an Arizona Republican strategist who advised the state’s Republican senator John McCain. “President Trump clearly has a great deal of influence with Republican voters, so his support of mail-in voting will have a real impact on how many Republicans ultimately return their ballots by mail.”

In response to detailed questions for this article, a Trump spokesman referred The Washington Post to a video Trump taped for the RNC that praised early voting.

Republican strategists have privately warned Trump’s campaign that there are a number of states where having an aggressive early-voting and mail-in voting effort is imperative, including Georgia and Arizona. Georgia doesn’t have partisan voter registration, but more than 1.7 million people voted early in person and about 191,000 voted by mail out of 3.5 million ballots cast in the December 2022 Senate runoff. Early voting was concentrated in Democrat-rich metro Atlanta counties such as Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett.

Cody Hall, a GOP strategist who is a senior adviser to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), said Trump’s rhetoric against mail-in ballots hurt him in the state in 2020, and “it’s totally possible it cost him the last election.” Hall said he also hasn’t seen signs yet of a dedicated GOP campaign to encourage early voting in Georgia this year.

“The messaging is one thing, but the resources are just as, if not more, important,” he said. “You have to actually do it. I’ve been screaming it from the mountaintop. You’ve got to have the money to execute this.”

In 2022, in Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and more than half of the state’s voters, Republicans trailed early ballot returns from four years earlier, according to an analysis of voter data by The Post. Republicans submitted 330,000 ballots, a return rate of 49 percent, down from a 63 percent return rate in 2018. In Nevada, Democrats returned about 105,400 ballots out of 605,000 mailed in 2022, versus 85,000 out of 540,000 for Republicans.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans in 2022 requested just under 300,000 mail ballots and returned about 263,000, compared with almost 975,000 Democratic requests, of which about 857,000 were returned, according to data from the secretary of state.

“It will be a huge factor in Pennsylvania,” said David Urban, a Trump ally who ran the former president’s efforts in Pennsylvania in 2016. “If we’re not playing, we do so at our own peril.”

Urban said Republican groups in the state are already spending to boost mail-in voting, partially due to Trump’s loss in the state and what happened in 2022, when Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) secured more than 1 million votes before the first debate, he said. They are doing that even as some lawmakers in Pennsylvania are trying to curb early-voting options.

A person close to Trump said the hope is that Trump will largely leave the topic alone publicly and not sabotage the efforts. Campaign and RNC officials are citing comments he has made at times encouraging Republicans to vote by mail as long as it is legal, saying the other side does it. “He’s never going to embrace voting by mail for the whole country,” according to this person, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

Another adviser said that in conversations about mail-in voting, Trump says it is “fraudulent” and that “he’s suspicious of the postal workers, of anyone who could touch the ballot.”

Trump adviser Susie Wiles has repeatedly told him that people vote by mail safely in Florida and that he won overwhelmingly, while also reminding him that he even voted by mail. In 2020, she was able to persuade Trump to tweet that voters in Florida should use mail because the state was safe, and Wiles has argued that the campaign should spend money and time promoting mail-in voting, people who have heard her arguments say.

“I think we can get him there,” the person close to Trump said, adding that the former president is relentlessly focused on winning, given the stakes for him financially and personally.

Former RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel emphasized the importance of encouraging early voting during her farewell speech at the RNC meeting in Houston earlier this month. “If Republicans succeed in getting Republicans to vote early and ballot harvest where legal, Donald Trump will win in November,” she said. “It really is that simple.”

Even though campaign finance laws make it more complicated for outside groups to run field operations, several are venturing into ballot-chasing this cycle, in part out of concern about perceived shortcomings on the part of official party committees. The right-wing youth group Turning Point Action said it has raised tens of millions of dollars to deploy hundreds of full-time organizers to Arizona and Wisconsin, with Georgia to follow.

Describing the pitch to Trump supporters who are skeptical of early and mail voting, Turning Point spokesman Andrew Kolvet said, “We’re not saying we don’t have election integrity concerns, we’re saying if we don’t show up and play the game with the rules as written, we don’t have a shot at all.”

Sentinel Action Fund, a super PAC associated with the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, is raising money to turn out low-propensity voters to vote early or by mail in key Senate races in Ohio, Montana and Pennsylvania. In a research memo circulated in March, the group recommended telling voters that voting early helps prevent potential Election Day mistakes, limits potential voter fraud and ensures their votes will be properly counted, and reduces the email, mail and phone calls they receive during the campaign season.

“Republicans can no longer solely rely on ‘day-of’ voters to win elections,” the fund’s president, Jessica Anderson, wrote in the memo. “We can and should do two things at once: call for election integrity reforms and utilize all tactics needed to win including mail in ballots, ballot chasing where legal, early vote and Election Day turnout.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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