Trump's opposition to voting-by-mail could backfire on the GOP

Trump's opposition to voting-by-mail could backfire on the GOP
Absent voter ballot application. I voted by mail sticker. Absentee forms. Shutterstock/ Linda Parton

Before someone reminded Donald Trump that he's supposed to say he opposes mail-in voting because of concern over potential fraud, he told "Fox and Friends" the unvarnished truth, warning that making it safe an easy to cast a ballot would lead to "levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Studies have shown that, during normal times, neither party gains an edge from universal vote-by-mail. But there is a widespread belief among Republican officials that it would benefit Democrats in a big way. And according to a new AP-NORC poll, while support for voting by mail has grown overall--and a majority of Americans now favor it if the pandemic is ongoing in November--there is also a growing partisan divide on the question as rank-and-file Republicans follow the lead of their president and other GOP elected officials.

Yet these are not normal times, and if there is still a significant risk of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person in November, expanding mail-in voting might end up benefiting Republicans instead.

The reason why is straightforward: Younger people skew heavily Democratic, normally turn out at a low rate relative to older voters and are at less risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19. Older voters, on the other hand, are usually more likely to vote, lean toward the GOP and are more wary of the risk of contracting the coronavirus. Put that all together and it's likely that we're seeing a disconnect between conservatives' belief that making it easier to vote benefits Democrats and the reality that we may encounter in November if the pandemic is still severe. That misunderstanding of the impact of voting by mail may have contributed to the outcome in Wisconsin, where Republicans fought like Hell to limit absentee voting in the belief that they could win a state supreme court race with low turnout but ended up getting smoked instead.

This may be a moot point by November. It's possible that we'll have the outbreak contained. And no-excuse absentee ballots are available in most of the swing-states. But we can't know now what the picture will look like in seven months, and as Buzzfeed News reports, local election officials need to plan well in advance for either universal mail-in voting or a huge surge in absentee ballots.

In addition to building new machinery, the mere act of printing ballots is complex, as neighbors can be in different legislative districts, so ballots have numerous variations. Mail-in elections also entail constructing multilayer security envelopes, assigning each envelope a barcode for tracking, and installing computer systems to help verify voter signatures upon return....

But decisions from many state and county election boards are frozen as Congress's first batch of emergency money trickles down slowly, and additional federal election relief is stuck in political limbo.

The immediate problems turn on bureaucracy and partisanship. Although Congress approved $400 million to support this year’s election as part of the CARES Act, a coronavirus relief package in March, $100 million of that still hasn’t been distributed to states...[and] some state legislatures still haven’t taken the votes required to accept the funds.

Industry sources tell Buzzfeed News that they can only get so many states and localities up to speed, and it's likely that local officials in Democratic-leaning areas are getting a jump on their Republican counterparts. It's still possible that Republicans will shift their position on the issue in the wake of Wisconsin and agree to fully fund safe methods of voting in November with enough lead-time to create the necessary infrastructure. But it's possible that Trump's baseless caterwauling about mail-in voting giving Democrats a huge advantage could end up discouraging his own voters' participation.

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