The day after the election for chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), the losing candidate, election lawyer Harmeet Dhillon, appeared on Fox News with a message for the GOP: the party needed to embrace early voting, including mail-in voting. “Whether it is mail-in voting, absentee voting or voting early in person in order for us to win, we must simply mechanically beat the Democrats at hustling the ballots of our voters into the ballot boxes as early as possible,” she told Maria Bartiromo.
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, who defeated Dhillon, agrees. In December 2022, the chair selected by former President Donald Trump in 2017 unironically complained that “[t]here were many in 2020 saying, don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early, and we have to stop that.” She failed to mention that the “many” who bad-mouthed mail-in voting included both her and Trump.
Pennsylvania Republicans are concerned enough about the issue that they announced that among the topics they plan to address in a post-mortem of their electoral wipe-out in 2022 is the effect the Republican war on mail-in voting had on the outcome of the election. An RNC member from Pennsylvania said that one goal of the post-mortem is to “convince the Republican voters that there’s integrity with the mail-in voting process, i.e. that their vote will count.”
If Republican leaders have had a change of heart about voting by mail, no one has told their lawyers or Republican-controlled legislatures. And a post-mortem review conducted by party elites is unlikely to sway their voters.
Despite the announcement in Pennsylvania, a group of Republican legislators continue their legal challenge to a state law allowing no-excuse mail-in voting. This law was enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature only months before Trump started his public vilification of mail-in voting.
The RNC filed and ultimately lost a lawsuit aimed at preventing Pennsylvania counties from giving voters an opportunity to fix small, technical mistakes on their mail-in ballots to ensure their votes are counted. Also in the commonwealth, the national Republican Party is in court opposing efforts to reduce the number of mail-in ballots discarded for having immaterial errors on their return envelopes.
But Pennsylvania isn’t the only battleground over mail-in voting. In fact, the list of current Republican legal efforts aimed at restricting this very popular and convenient form of voting is long.
In Arizona, while MAGA Republicans decried long voting lines on Election Day in November 2022, the Republican Party unsuccessfully sued twice to ban no-excuse mail-in voting altogether. Yet, the day after the RNC chair election, the state party filed another appeal, this time in the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in Arizona federal court, the GOP is defending two voter suppression laws that purge voters from the state’s permanent mail-in voting rolls and restrict voters’ abilities to fix small technical errors on their mail-in ballots.
In North Carolina, the RNC and state party are suing to shorten the mail-in ballot return deadline while the state party is simultaneously asking a court to impose a signature matching requirement not found in state law. In Georgia, national Republicans are in court defending a law that requires absentee ballot applications to be signed with pen and ink, prohibiting the use of digital signatures.
National Republicans insisted that New York should maintain election practices that led to a high rejection rate of absentee ballots in 2020. In Iowa, the same Republicans are defending a law that reduces the number of days that voters can request and return absentee ballots. In Illinois, state Republicans are asking a federal court to shorten the deadline for the receipt of mail-in ballots.
Despite their rhetoric following the 2022 midterms, Republicans continue to litigate most of these cases.
Republicans’ hostility to mail-in voting is not limited to the courtroom. At the same time that the RNC chair was telling the media that the GOP needed to stop vilifying mail-in voting, Republican legislatures continued vilifying it anyway.
The first Republican voter suppression law of 2023 directly targets mail-in voting. In December 2022, Ohio’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed an omnibus restrictive voting law that targets important aspects of mail-in voting in the Buckeye State, shortening the deadline to request, return and cure mail-in ballots. Gov. Mike DeWine (R), whom Republicans often point to as a moderate, signed the bill into law on Jan. 6, 2023.
Ohio’s new law builds on similar voter suppression laws enacted in other states in 2021. It limits each county to a single drop box regardless of the county’s size, shortens the deadline to request mail-in ballots from noon on the third day before Election Day to the seventh day before Election Day and moves forward the deadline to return mail-in ballots from the 10th day after Election Day to the fourth day. It also cuts the period for voters to fix minor mistakes on their returned mail-in ballots from 10 to just four days.
When DeWine signed the bill into law, he bragged that “Ohio does a good job of administering elections” but nevertheless cited “election integrity” as a “significant concern to Americans.” He failed to explain how limiting drop boxes, shortening deadlines and disenfranchising overseas members of the military addresses this concern.
During this legislative season, more than 120 bills aimed at restricting mail-in voting have been introduced across 35 states, dozens of which have passed at least one legislative chamber. Aside from Ohio’s new law, other states — like Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota and Wyoming — have similarly enacted legislation specifically designed to make mail-in voting harder. Just this year, Arkansas and South Dakota banned drop boxes, Mississippi increased criminal penalties for ballot collection and Wyoming added stricter identification requirements for mail-in ballots. It’s been months since the RNC chair softened her tone on mail-in voting and, even as we head into the 2024 election cycle, Republican state lawmakers still haven’t gotten the memo.
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I have no doubt that some Republican political operatives genuinely believe that their party needs to embrace mail-in voting to remain electorally competitive. But many of those same operatives argued that Trump should not demonize it in the first place. Trump ignored that advice and brought the rest of the GOP along with him. Going back won’t be so easy.
Trump convinced Republican voters not to trust mail-in voting. Republicans doubled down on the same message in 2022 — and court dockets across the country reflect that choice. In fact, disputes over mail-in voting were the most common type of voting and election-related litigation in 2022.
Having lost another round of elections, Republican Party elites may now want to change course, and advocate for their supporters to take advantage of mail-in voting. But their plan ignores the fact that Republican voters have been bombarded for four years with lies from their leaders about this kind of voting.
Convincing Republican voters to change their behavior will require more than just a party report or press release. It will require specific action. Republicans can start by altering their litigation position in court. They can also enact new laws to expand voting by mail. Without those concrete steps, the Republican attacks on mail-in voting will continue.