League of Women Voters of California LWVC from USA / CC BY

April 30, 2020; The Guardian and Politico

As NPQ has noted, historically, vote-by-mail does not appear to have tipped the scale to favor any particular party in the US, but Republicans resist the practice’s extension. It is unclear if Congress will act to expand vote-by-mail, but regardless, Republicans have increasingly come to recognize that vote-by-mail, which is already universally available in two-thirds of states, will be critical to the 2020 elections.

Republican efforts to organize for vote-by-mail increased after the fiasco in Wisconsin.  Already, many states, especially those with late spring primaries, are giving absentee voting and vote-by-mail much more attention. And that attention is coming from both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

“The instruction manual says, ‘Don’t publicly disagree with the president, but do whatever you need to do,’” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL). “Certainly in Florida, I can assure you, the Republican Party and all Republican campaigns are going to be pursuing mail voting very aggressively.”

These actions at the state level continue, even as squabbles in Congress limit federal funding to help states scale up their vote-by-mail operations. Republicans opposed components in the coronavirus relief bills that would have made voting easier, including mailing a ballot to everyone, expanding early voting, and implementing online voter registration (all recommendations contained in the Brennan Center for Justice’s report, “How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus”). The CARES bill allocated only $400 million to states to help prepare for elections. This is a fraction of the $4 billion experts say is needed.

“It’s really disappointing that our political leaders aren’t all working to ensure that every eligible American is able to cast a ballot that will count,” says Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center.

But with Wisconsin as their wake-up call, Republican operatives are quietly working on a new playbook that has vote-by-mail as a key component. Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips said his group is “absolutely going to up the percentage of dollars that go into absentee and early voting,” where they run grassroots programs for many competitive congressional races supporting conservative Republican candidates. He indicated that their program in Wisconsin was successful in getting their identified voters to request and complete absentee ballots. Red states like Ohio, Georgia, and Kentucky have seen their state leadership and local officials break from Trump and jump on the absentee voting bandwagon, even if efforts to date have been modest.

Registered voters in 34 states can already request an absentee ballot for any reason, so vote-by-mail efforts are likely to be critical, especially in states seen as pivotal to the 2020 election’s outcome, like Michigan and Pennsylvania. More than two thirds of Wisconsin’s primary voters did vote by mail, with no changes to election policy. Depending on the social-distancing policies this fall and just how people are feeling about being out and waiting for their turn to vote, similar levels of participation could be expected in other states. Josh Holmes, an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), suggests that campaigns could use primaries as “beta tests” for November.

It seems like vote-by-mail will happen, even if perhaps surreptitiously. Although some Republicans claim, contrary to past election data, that mail voting harms the GOP, other Republicans work to mobilize voters to cast mail ballots.—Carole Levine