President Donald Trump has said voting by mail is “fraudulent” and will result in “rigged” elections.
As of Thursday morning, about 1.3 million registered Democrats had requested and been approved for mail ballots for the June 2 primary election, compared with about 524,000 Republicans. Republicans made just 29% of the requests, even though they represent 38% of registered voters in the state and 45% of those registered with either major party.
“I must tell you that locally, in my county, we’re not advocating and we’re not pushing the mail-in voting,” said Lee Snover, chairwoman of the Northampton County GOP. “We’re concerned about fraud. We’re not happy with the process. Trump has sent the message out there that he’s concerned about it as well.
“I think that we need to inspire Americans to get out and go to the polls,” she said. “Sign in, identify yourself, and vote.”
Northampton County, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was one of three in the state that voted twice for Barack Obama before backing Trump.
“Our county kind of is a Trump county. We’re kind of listening to Trump on this,” Snover said. “He’s spoken about it. He’s tweeted about it. He doesn’t want us to do it.”
Snover said “more than one person” has told her that “Trump doesn’t want us mailing in, [so] I’m not mailing it in.”
The data and anecdotal reports like Snover’s show that Trump’s rhetorical war against voting by mail is turning into a high-stakes bet that enough of his supporters will show up at the polls during a pandemic to propel the president in a key battleground state he won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016.
Trump has long cast doubt on the integrity of U.S. elections and stepped up his attacks in recent weeks. Last week, he falsely accused Michigan’s “rogue” secretary of state of “illegally” sending absentee ballot applications to millions of people. The same day, he falsely tweeted that Nevada was “creating a great Voter Fraud scenario.”
“The United States cannot have all Mail In Ballots,” he wrote Sunday. “It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history.” He followed up Wednesday declaring, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”
Election experts say that while fraud does occur more frequently in absentee voting than in person, it is still very rare. Five states, including the Republican stronghold of Utah, conduct elections primarily by mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Last fall, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature passed, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed, a law allowing all registered voters to vote by mail without providing a reason.
Now, amid public health concerns over potential exposure to the coronavirus, scores of voters have applied for mail ballots. The number of registered voters in Philadelphia alone who have requested mail ballots exceeds the statewide total in the 2016 primary.
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party said last week that it worked with allied groups to encourage mail-in voting by sending more than one million text messages and making 750,000 phone calls.
Outside the White House, Republicans have tried to promote the option, too. The Pennsylvania GOP has paid for Facebook ads encouraging people to “vote from the safety of your own home.” Its website features a how-to guide for mail-in voting and explains “why it’s smart.”
“There are no lines, no delays, and no potential voting machine malfunctions,” the guide says. “Democrats will use the new mail-in ballot to greatly increase their turnout. Republicans would be smart to do the same so that we have the advantage.”
The state GOP “believes that mail-in ballots should only be an option for voters — not the only means of casting their ballot,” said Charlie O’Neill, the party’s deputy executive director. “We have sent information to voters informing them to that option, but in no way should this hinder or change voters’ rights to be heard at the polls.”
Last week, the Trump campaign sent an email alerting people to the May 26 deadline to apply for a mail ballot. The message — which featured a Trump-Pence “Keep America Great!” campaign logo — included a link to the application form.
Campaigns have also promoted mail-in voting via social media, texting, phone calls, and advertising.
“Vote by mail in the June 2 primary before the deadline passes,” reads a Facebook ad paid for by U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.), which links to the ballot application form. “Vote Perry. Help Trump.”
Despite the conflicting messages, many Republican primary voters appear to be listening to Trump. And he has been adamant that mail voting is a very bad idea — though he himself voted absentee in Florida in March.
A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee said this week that the GOP has “always supported absentee voting with safeguards in place,” but opposes “a nationwide experiment that would eliminate those safeguards, invite fraud, and weaken the integrity of our elections.”
Republicans are less likely to support expanded mail voting, according to public opinion surveys. While 64% of U.S. adults favor their state’s allowing all voters to vote by mail in November’s presidential election, just 40% of Republicans support that, according to an April Gallup survey. Eighty-three percent of Democrats and more than two-thirds of independents said they supported the idea.
“I think voters largely, at least on the Republican side, want to vote in person,” said Lance Stange, chairman of the Lackawanna County GOP. “I think that that is part of the motivating factor.”
In his Northeast Pennsylvania county, about 30% of voters are registered Republicans. But just 20% of mail-in ballot applications processed there were requested by Republicans.
“I think there’s also a little bit of a learning curve. This is the first election where we’ve implemented this,” Stange said, referring to the new election law.
There have been some reports of voters receiving the wrong mail-in ballot, he said — like a registered Republican receiving a ballot for the Democratic primary. In Montgomery County, officials realized this past weekend they had sent the wrong ballots to almost 2,000 voters.
“I think that also hurts faith people have in that process,” Stange said.
The difficulty is predicting whether Republican voters who are requesting mail ballots in low numbers will show up Tuesday to vote in person — or sit out the election altogether, with no contested presidential race to draw them out. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the campaign, and there is little past precedent to draw upon.
But Snover, the Northampton County GOP chair, said the party will need to compete for voters who plan to vote by mail in the general election — or else Democrats might gain an advantage.
“It’s one thing to not advocate for it,” she said. “It’s another to realize this is the new game and this is the new system, and we have to figure out how to go out and make the best of it.”
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.