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News / Politics / Election

After blaming his 2020 loss on mail balloting, Trump tries to make GOP voters believe it’s OK now

By NICHOLAS RICCARDI and MARGERY BECK, Associated Press
Published: May 17, 2024, 2:04pm

Marta Moehring voted the way she prefers in Nebraska’s Republican primary Tuesday — in person, at her west Omaha polling place.

She didn’t even consider taking advantage of the state’s no-excuse mail-in ballot process. In fact, she would prefer to do away with mail-in voting altogether. She’s convinced fraudulent mailed ballots cost former President Donald Trump a second term in 2020.

“I don’t trust it in general,” Moehring, 62, said. “I don’t think they’re counted correctly.”

But now Republican officials — even, sometimes, Trump — are encouraging voters such as Moehring to cast their ballots by mail. The GOP has launched an effort to, in the words of one official, “correct the narrative” on mail voting and get those who were turned off to it by Trump to reconsider for this year’s election.

The push is a striking change for a party that amplified dark rumors about mail ballots to explain away Trump’s 2020 loss, but it is also seen as a necessary course correction for an election this year that is likely to be decided by razor-thin margins in a handful of swing states.

“We have to get right on using these mail-in ballots for the people who can’t get there on Election Day,” Rep. Scott Perry, one of Trump’s strongest congressional allies in his push to overturn the 2020 election, said at a conservative gathering in his home state of Pennsylvania.

Republicans once were at least as likely as Democrats to vote by mail, but Trump changed the dynamics in 2020. He preemptively began to argue that mail balloting was bad months before voting began in the presidential race.

That alarmed GOP strategists who saw mail voting as an advantage in campaigns because it lets them “bank” unreliable votes before Election Day and lowers the risk of turnout plummeting because of bad weather or other unpredictable factors at the polls. Trump’s own campaign tried to sell Republicans on casting ballots by mail, but his voters listened to the then-president. In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Democrats were vastly more likely to cast ballots by mail than Republicans.

The trend continued in 2022, and its costs were starkly illustrated in Arizona.

Three top-of-the-ticket Republican candidates there who echoed Trump’s lies about the unreliability of mail ballots encouraged their supporters to vote in person on Election Day. An election machine meltdown that day in one-third of the polling places in the state’s most populous county led to huge lines and some would-be voters departing in frustration.

The three top Republicans all lost, including falling 17,000 votes short in the governor’s race and 500 votes short in the one for attorney general.

This time, Republicans say they’re not going to risk leaving ballots behind. Trump’s handpicked chair of the Republican National Committee, his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, has vowed to embrace all sorts of legal election methods to boost turnout that Trump falsely blamed for his 2020 loss, including so-called “ballot harvesting” — letting people turn in mail ballots on the behalf of other voters.

“In this election cycle, Republicans will beat Democrats at their own game, by leveraging every legal tactic at our disposal based on the rules of each state,” Lara Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press.

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Turning Point Action, a prominent, pro-Trump group, is launching a $100 million campaign to reach infrequent voters in the swing states of Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin. That will include offering mail voting as one way to make casting a ballot easier, spokesman Andrew Kolvet said.

“We’d love for elections to be run the way they were before,” Kolvet said. “We can spend our time complaining about it or we can get in gear and play by the rules that Democrats, or largely Democrats, used.”

Even Trump himself has started to recommend mail voting, though he frequently bashes it during campaign events and blames it for his 2020 loss. The RNC is also continuing to file lawsuits against various aspects of mail voting around the country.

Nonetheless, Trump recorded a short video telling his supporters that “absentee voting, early voting and Election Day voting are all good options.”

One recent push to publicize mail voting came during last month’s Pennsylvania primary, when the Republican State Legislative Committee teamed up with a committee supporting the party’s Senate candidate and the state GOP. The goal, said RSLC political director Max Docksey, was “to correct the narrative among Republican voters on mail voting.”

The effort was inspired by what the RSLC saw as a successful effort to increase mail voting among Republicans in the battle for control of the Virginia Legislature in 2023, a fight ultimately won by the Democrats.

The group sent mail ballot applications to 1.5 million GOP voters, sent 475,000 text messages encouraging mail voting and touted the benefits of mail voting at party gatherings.

But at the same time, Pennsylvania Republicans have sued to force the state’s mail ballots to be counted at polling places rather than the county election offices, which have the equipment and space to do the job, That’s among many lawsuits targeting mail voting filed by Republicans around the country since 2020.

The conflicting messages could make it challenging to swiftly reverse the drop-off in mail voting among Republicans.

In Pennsylvania, Republican operatives were pleased with their effort, which they said led to them adding nearly twice as many voters to the state’s mail ballot list as Democrats did during the primary. But the overall share of Pennsylvania mail ballots sent by Republicans remained about the same as in 2020, at only one-quarter of overall ballots, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

Bill Bretz, chairman of the Westmoreland County Republican Party in the western side of the state, said he’s noticed voters in his conservative area slowly but steadily warming up to mail voting.

“People understand the consequences of this election,” he said. “There’s a lot of buy-in to vote by any method available, and the vote-by-mail bogeyman is beginning to fade.”

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