After years of Republican attacks on voter integrity, GOP leaders on Monday emphasized the importance of early voting and how such efforts are critical to their party’s efforts to hold on to Congress and win the White House next year.
“To win in 2024, we know Republicans must reach more voters than ever before, which is exactly what we are doing through the ‘Bank Your Vote’ program,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party.
Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, was among the GOP leaders on a call Monday with the news media to emphasize the importance of early voting, mail ballots and ballot harvesting to their party’s chances of success next year.
“You can’t expect to win a game if you only start scoring in the fourth quarter,” she said. “We can’t allow Democrats to have a head start heading into election day.”
Left unsaid, however, was the reason national and state GOP chieftains, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, need to press their supporters to cast their ballots early, as they historically did until 2020.
After then-President Trump and other conservative stars falsely claimed that mail voting allowed elections to be rigged against them, many Republican voters abandoned the practice — a historic shift that probably cost the party seats in the 2020 and 2022 elections, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who wrote “From Pandemic to Insurrection: Voting in the 2020 Presidential Election.”
McDonald is among the electoral analysts who believe that GOP voters’ newfound reluctance to cast such votes probably damaged their party’s effort to control the U.S. Senate as well as its prospects in some tight House and gubernatorial races across the country in the last two electoral cycles.
“Even though national and state parties are spending a lot of money — millions of dollars — to try to encourage supporters to vote by mail, and some did undoubtedly, the numbers weren’t there as they had been in prior elections,” McDonald said. “And I think you have Trump largely to blame or to credit for that.”
The participants in the news conference call did not mention Trump’s name until asked by a reporter about how they expected to rebuild trust with voters while the former president was still casting doubts about the integrity of such ballots.
McCarthy responded that Trump filmed a video promoting the Bank Your Vote program. “He sees the importance,” the House speaker said.
Trump released the video in late July, about a week after he said during a Fox News interview that while he supported early voting, people create “phony ballots.”
Given the dominance of left-leaning voters in California, the state has not played a major role in swaying presidential elections for decades because the state has been firmly backed Democratic candidates. However, several congressional races in the state remain in play, specifically in Southern California and the Central Valley, and the outcomes could determine which party controls Congress after the 2024 election.
McCarthy and Patterson pointed to a narrow win last year by Rep. John Duarte in a Modesto-based district as evidence that early voting works. President Biden won the district by 11 percentage points. Republicans targeted 25,000 GOP voters who hadn’t cast ballots, and Duarte won the seat by 564 votes.
Historically, Republicans favored mail ballots, partly because their party’s supporters tended to be older than Democrats and such voting allowed them to participate in democracy while avoiding standing in line at the polls in states like Florida and Arizona.
“For years, early voting has been a significant and substantial advantage for Republican campaigns,” said Tom Bonier, chief executive of VoteSmart, a Democratic data firm. ”It was something Republicans generally were better at. … It really wasn’t until President Trump told everyone that it was fraudulent that it changed. But it changed dramatically.”
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, as more states were mailing every voter a ballot because of the pandemic, Trump homed in on these votes as flawed, a “scam” and designed by Democrats to cost him reelection. He said this would result in the “most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” suggested the election be postponed and used these false claims as the basis for why he may not accept the election results.
Republican operatives knew this approach was problematic. In Florida, the state party highlighted a Trump tweet that praised absentee ballots while blurring out the rest of his statement about how mail ballots “will lead to the most corrupt Election [in] USA history.”
Top Trump advisors, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign manager Bill Stepien and McCarthy, reportedly tried to convince the then-president that mail ballots were key to the party’s efforts in 2020.
“I tried to show him … you know who is most afraid of COVID? Seniors. And if they’re not going to go vote, period, we’re screwed,” McCarthy told Axios in September 2020.
The damage was already done. Supporters of Biden reported voting by mail nearly twice as much as those who backed Trump, according to a Pew Research Center survey after the 2020 election. Similar trends probably later affected the Georgia Senate elections, as well as contests in Arizona and Nevada — states that had election day challenges because of technology and weather mishaps, respectively.
“These things obviously do happen,” Bonier said. But on election day, campaigns “have far less margin for error.”
GOP leaders have tried to warn their party’s voters that reluctance about mail voting is costing them at the ballot box — with limited success. Weeks after the unsuccessful effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021, Republicans lawyers spoke out at their party’s convention arguing that the pro-recall vote was stifled because of conspiracy theories about voting.
“There are very good people who have surprisingly bought into that — my vote doesn’t count in California, so therefore I’m not going to vote,” Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County GOP, said during a panel called “Jim Crow 2.0 or Common Sense: The National Debate Over Election Integrity Laws.” “In any sport, if you don’t go on the field, you will not win. And politics is a contact sport, it is a team sport and we have to have everybody voting.”
During that panel discussion, just like Monday’s press call, no one mentioned that the most vocal and influential person who has promoted such false claims is Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.