The Republicans Telling Their Voters to Ignore Trump

GOP leaders in swing states are huge fans of voting by mail, despite the president’s unrelenting attacks on the practice.

Paul Spella / The Atlantic

There’s a major complication in President Donald Trump’s recent crusade against voting by mail, which he has called “a scam” that will lead to “the greatest Rigged Election” in history: In states that Trump desperately needs to win this fall, Republicans love it.

Take Arizona, where polls show Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden after he carried the state narrowly in 2016. Republicans pioneered Arizona’s mail-in balloting system, which now accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s vote. “It’s been remarkably successful,” Chuck Coughlin, a longtime GOP operative and a onetime aide to the late Senator John McCain, told me. “There’s been minimal to no fraud for a long period of time.”

Republicans say the same in Florida, the quadrennial swing state where voting by mail has become more and more popular in recent years, especially with older GOP voters. (One of the older GOP voters who uses the system is Trump himself.) “Yes, Florida Republicans over the last two decades have dominated absentees,” Joe Gruters, the state’s party chairman, told me.

Trump’s unrelenting attacks on the integrity of mail-in voting are puzzling for a variety of reasons, not least because they are unfounded. But they’re particularly awkward for Republican leaders—especially those allied with the president—who need their voters to continue using a system Trump is trying to discredit. The president has, for example, gone after Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, for mailing absentee-ballot applications to every voter in the state as part of an effort to avoid depressed turnout due to the coronavirus pandemic. But GOP leaders in several other states have done the same thing.

In states such as Florida and Georgia, GOP officials have carefully tried to defend their own systems without directly confronting the president. The Florida Republican Party is fighting a lawsuit brought by Democrats to relax the state’s deadlines for returning ballots and its rules limiting who can collect them. But it is still encouraging GOP voters to cast their ballots by mail if they want. “I agree with the president 100 percent. I’ll begin by saying that,” Gruters replied when I asked him to respond to Trump’s critique of mail-in voting. But he then proceeded to explain why Florida’s absentee system shouldn’t be lumped in with the rest of the country’s. “We have certain laws in place that protect the integrity of elections,” he said. “Florida is somewhat unique and we’re sort of an outlier, but a lot of these states don’t have these protections, and I’m glad he’s fighting.”

Trump appears to have succeeded at least in changing the terms of the debate. Among his allies, vote-by-mail is fast becoming a forbidden phrase. Multiple Republicans I spoke with in recent days insisted on using the broader term “absentee ballots” even when, in states such as Florida, vote-by-mail is the system’s official name. In part, that’s because they are more comfortable siding with Trump against a mail-only election even as they distance themselves from the president’s blunter critique of the actual mechanism of mailing in a ballot.

Gruters told me he sent an email to “a couple hundred thousand” Republican voters last month urging them to request an absentee ballot “if they feel more comfortable.” (Trump also urged people to “mail in ballots” in a California election as recently as May 9.) “We will continue to use it as part of our overall strategy for the people who want to vote absentee,” he said. “But what we’re opposed to is any kind of forced vote-by-mail statewide.”

Other Republicans question Trump’s attacks on voting by mail as a matter of political strategy. “It’s tough to imagine you’d want to disenfranchise the 25 percent of Americans who voted [by mail] in the election you won. That’s a mindset I don’t understand,” Tom Ridge, the Republican former Pennsylvania governor and homeland-security secretary, told me. Ridge is now helping to lead a bipartisan group called VoteSafe that promotes mail-in balloting. He noted that Trump has the built-in advantages of incumbency and an enormous campaign war chest that he could use to mobilize his base with a mail-in-balloting drive. “Why he would be sowing, potentially, seeds of doubt for an outcome when he’s got all these assets perfectly aligned to maximize support from an absentee-ballot perspective is beyond belief,” Ridge said.

In a number of states, mail-in voting is particularly popular among older and rural voters, who tend to favor Republicans. “We did it principally to encourage seniors and winter visitors who re-registered [in Arizona] to vote,” Coughlin told me. “His base and Republicans are much better at returning ballots” by mail.

In Wisconsin’s Fond du Lac County, the local GOP chairman, Rohn Bishop, took the rare step of snapping back at the president on Twitter last week, replying to one of Trump’s all-caps diatribes about voting by mail with a rant of his own: “THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT MAIL IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE,” Bishop wrote. “IN FACT, WE MAY BE ABLE TO USE IT TO HELP OFFSET THE DEMOCRATS EARLY VOTING ADVANTAGES.”

“I kind of screamed at my computer,” Bishop told me when I reached him by phone. Mail-in voting works well in Wisconsin, he said, and helps Republicans in rural parts of the state compete with Democratic strongholds that have more resources to dedicate to in-person early voting. Because rural counties don’t open many early-voting locations, voting by mail is more important. “I just think we can use it to help [Trump] here,” Bishop said.

In rural America, there’s a bigger risk to Trump’s attacks on mail balloting than merely annoying Republican officials. “Trump’s rhetoric may inadvertently be suppressing Republican votes,” Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida, told me. A reluctance among GOP voters to use the system could lead to longer lines at polling sites, which in turn could discourage voter turnout in places where Trump is stronger, especially if the pandemic remains a factor in November, he explained.

The Postal Service could be another problem. Trump is opposed to efforts to shore up the beleaguered agency in preparation for a surge in mail-in ballots. But delays in mail service could disproportionately affect rural areas, especially if Republicans are simultaneously fighting changes that would relax deadlines requiring ballots to be received, and not merely postmarked, by Election Day. “More of the rural ballots are getting returned later,” McDonald said.

In Pennsylvania, more Democrats than Republicans requested absentee ballots in every county in the run-up to this week’s primary elections, and the surge of late requests prompted Governor Tom Wolf to extend the deadline for returning ballots by a week in several counties, including Philadelphia. That potential for a late surge is exactly what’s causing states—whether led by Republicans or Democrats—to prepare for the possibility of a huge demand for mail voting this fall.

And it means that GOP leaders in many of these states are telling their voters to support Trump—and also, implicitly, to ignore him. “We’re giving people the choice,” Gruters, the Florida GOP chairman, told me. “If you want to vote by mail, vote by mail.”