Despite opposition from President Donald Trump, many local Republican election officials across the country are continuing to push for expanding mail-in voting ahead of November’s election.
The novel coronavirus outbreak has made voting in person a health hazard: Wisconsin health officials have linked at least 19 new COVID-19 cases to the state’s primary election earlier this month.
Election officials of both parties have turned to mail-in voting to alleviate those concerns. Indeed, leading Republican election officials in states such as Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Ohio are encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots by mail ahead of their respective primaries.
However, in other states, state GOP leaders are following Trump’s lead. Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico and Virginia have fought attempts to expand mail-in voting systems. Democrats remain supportive of the voting method.
Voters in 28 states can vote absentee without providing an excuse. Among the states that do not require an excuse to vote absentee are many of the swing states needed to win the presidency, such as Florida and Michigan.
Especially at the county level, some Republican election officials have remained adamant in their support for mail-in voting. That includes Leslie Hoffman, the county recorder for Yavapai County, Arizona — a deeply red area that surrounds the town of Prescott.
Nearly two-thirds of the county’s voters supported Trump in 2016. Even so, mail-voting is popular in her north-central Arizona county: More than three-quarters of voters have previously signed up to receive absentee ballots in the mail.
Opposition to mail-in voting from fellow Republicans in the state and federal governments, she said, is based on concerns that have not proven true there.
“It’s totally political,” she said. “It has nothing to do with cost savings or the safety of poll workers.”
In Pasco County, Florida, two-thirds of voters cast their ballots by mail. Brian Corley, the supervisor of elections and a Republican, has added safeguards to ensure the integrity of ballots — including giving voters the opportunity to correct any discrepancies his office finds with voter signatures and allowing voters to track their ballots through the mail system.
The county, which surrounds Dade City, voted 59% for Trump in 2016.
“Once voters start voting by mail, they’re hooked,” he said. “It’s safe, it’s secure and voters absolutely love it. I want every voter to have that option.”
Support among Republicans at the county level contrasts with strong rhetoric from some national and state GOP leaders, who have denounced mail-in voting as ripe for fraud.
“I think mail-in voting is a terrible thing,” Trump said earlier this month. U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, called House Democrats’ attempt to fund mail-in voting efforts in the states “disgusting.”
Trump has since said that mail-in voting is a good option for older voters — a likely nod to his base — but continues to say he does not support universal mail-in voting. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have recently voted absentee in their home states.
Trump has made completely unsubstantiated claims, said Trevor Potter, the general counsel to the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, during both of his presidential runs.
“To attempt to turn this discussion about enabling all Americans to vote into a nakedly partisan debate is deeply disappointing during this time of national crisis,” he said. “This feels like a gut comment rather than a calculated one.”
Potter, who founded the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for expanding ballot access, said heavily Republican Utah as well as heavily Democratic Washington state implemented mail-in voting. Oregon has conducted its elections by mail since 2000.
It’s a nonpartisan issue, said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to implementing mail-in voting based in Denver. Vendors are standing by and ready to help states and counties, she said, but they need time to implement the changes.
A new study from the Democracy and Polarization Lab at Stanford shows that mail-in voting does not advantage either political party. Researchers focused on counties in California, Utah and Washington that voted entirely by mail.
Counties and states must start planning and laying the groundwork for November now, said Corley in Pasco County.
In addition to federal dollars to buy new software and train staff, there needs to be enough resources to educate the public on the security of the voting system, Corley said, including the way ballots are mailed or dropped off and tracked. With the misleading rhetoric from the White House and elsewhere, voters might make incorrect assumptions, he said.
“It doesn’t matter what political party you are,” he said. “It shouldn’t be politicized.”
Holding elections by mail remains popular with Americans. Recent polls — one from NBC News/Wall Street Journal and another from Harvard and Harris Insights and Analytics — show that two-thirds of Americans support holding this year’s presidential election by mail.
In Missouri, which requires an excuse to cast an absentee ballot, fewer than 10% of voters mail in their ballots. Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft previously told Stateline that he does not have the power to unilaterally change election law, deferring instead to the Republican-led state legislature.
This presents a challenge for counties, said Eric Fey, the Democratic director of elections for St. Louis County. Fey worries he won’t be able to meet voter demand.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty for voters,” he said. “You can’t wait to the last minute to plan an election. But unfortunately we’re being put in a position where we’re going down to the final hour to make preparations.”
The bipartisan Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities has been calling for no-excuse absentee voting for years.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed several lawsuits this month challenging states that require excuses to vote absentee in elections, including in Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina. And Democrats sued Texas over similar restrictions.
As November’s presidential election approaches, there will be greater pressure on state lawmakers and election officials to modify voting laws that allow for more absentee voting, said Potter of the Campaign Legal Center.
“Leaders in both parties are not going to want to put voters at risk,” he said.