Republicans Have a Mail-in Voting Problem

Red background with a blue mail-in ballot return envelope and a reaction message bubble that switches from thumbs up to thumbs down as a gif

As Ronna McDaniel prepares to leave her post as chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) next week, Republicans are left with a big problem that may end up costing them the 2024 election. Even if the GOP wanted to fix it, it may be too late. The best part: they have only Donald Trump to blame.

Even as voting by mail has become increasingly important to winning elections, it remains a target of Republican derision. Now, the Republican establishment claims to want to reverse this, but former President Donald Trump continues sabotaging them at every turn.

Historically, mail-in voting was seen as an election modernization without a partisan benefit. Its most loyal users were older voters and those in the military or living abroad. White voters preferred it more than Black voters.

In 2016, only 21% of voters cast their ballot by mail. But, with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, more voters than ever took advantage of the safety and convenience of voting from home.

Republican operatives, who had mastered large scale mail-in voter drives initially saw an opportunity. That is, until Trump — seemingly out of nowhere — started attacking mail-in voting at every turn in the lead up to the 2020 election.

At the same time the party tells their voters that voting by mail is easy, it is encouraging its legislators to enact new laws to make voting by mail more difficult.

The result was a divide over mail-in voting in 2020 that continues to grow. While 43% of Americans cast their ballot by mail in 2020, women were more likely to do so than men. Hispanic and Asian Americans were more likely than white voters. College educated voters utilized vote by mail in higher proportions than those who did not complete college. By the 2022 midterms, only 38% of voters over the age of 65 were taking advantage of a system largely designed to cater to their needs.

A year ago, I wrote about the Republican Party’s mail-in voting dilemma. On the one hand, key leaders of the party were panicking and insisting that the GOP needed to reverse course in its opposition to vote by mail or risk continuing losing elections. On the other was the party’s continued subservience to Trump. I was skeptical that the GOP could simultaneously promote mail-in voting while also enacting new laws and initiating new lawsuits to restrict it.

Yet, that is exactly what the Republican Party tried.

Last June, the RNC announced a new program “bank your vote.” In a splashy website, the party explained that “[t]o beat Joe Biden and the Democrats in 2024, we must ensure that Republicans bank as many votes as possible before Election Day.” It assured its faithful that they “should feel comfortable” voting by mail and promised that “[i]n all 56 states and territories, your Republican Party will be working hard to get our voters to vote by mail.” The party even convinced Trump to record a message supporting the bank you vote website.

Trump did not stay on message for long. On the campaign trail, time and time again Trump has unraveled in the way he often does. In one recent three-day span, he told rally goers in Michigan: “Mail-in voting is totally corrupt. Get that through your head;” and a Fox News town hall: “If you have mail-in voting, you automatically have fraud.”

It is almost enough to make you feel bad for the GOP. That is until you remember that the Republican Party is double dealing as well. At the same time the party tells their voters that voting by mail is easy, it is encouraging its legislators to enact new laws to make voting by mail more difficult. While they tell their voters mail-in voting is safe, the party is filing lawsuits falsely claiming it leads to widespread fraud.

The result of the Republican’s mixed messages is as predictable as it is clear. In a recent poll, only 28% of Republicans support no-excuse mail-in voting. For Republicans, it is literally the least popular election policy tested in the poll. More Republicans support automatic voter registration and allowing people convicted of felonies to vote after serving their sentences.

In a recent Pennsylvania state House special election, the Democratic candidate won the mail-in vote 86% to 14%. Not surprisingly, he also won the election.

There are several theories as to why Democrats continue to outperform Republicans in special elections. I am convinced that attitudes about mail-in voting are part of the answer. 

Republicans in New York spent months suing in vain to block no-excuse absentee voting for the congressional special election to fill George Santos’ seat. When a snowstorm hit the district on Election Day, the Democrat cruised to an easy victory. While Democrats had “banked” their mail-in votes, Republicans were left scrambling to rent snow plows on the morning of Election Day.

I ended my piece last year with this advice to the GOP:

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.

Republicans ignored my advice just as Trump ignored Republican pleas to stop attacking mail in voting in 2020. The truth is that the GOP cannot stop attacking mail-in voting because Donald Trump won’t let them.

As they transition to a new chair, Republicans are caught in a trap of their own making. In November 2024, they will again bear the consequences.