Do Republicans Oppose Vote by Mail? In Pennsylvania, It’s Not That Simple

April 14, 2020by Julia Terruso, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Voters drop off their presidential primary mail-in ballots at a drop box at King County Elections in Renton, Wash. on March 10, 2020. (Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — President Donald Trump has called mail-in voting a practice ripe for fraud. He’s said if elections were to be carried out entirely by mail, a Republican would never be elected again.

And yet, Pennsylvania, voters this week got mailers from the Republican National Committee encouraging them to apply to vote by mail. The filers described the option as “convenient and secure.”

Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill to expand vote by mail before the coronavirus was known. And nationally, Republican governors and secretaries of state have advocated for vote by mail. While the issue has become more partisan since Trump weighed in, the split is more complicated at the state and local level.

“I am a conservative Republican,” said Christian Leinback, chair of the Berks County Commissioners, who wants his county to be able to vote entirely by mail on June 2. “I have conservative Republican friends who believe that’s a really bad idea. I don’t. I believe we need to make voting in the current health crisis as safe as possible.”

Experts on voting rights say mail-in ballots have really only been politicized recently. Utah, a deep-red state, is one of five that utilizes mail-in voting almost exclusively. Kim Wyman, Washington’s GOP secretary of state, is an outspoken proponent. And Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine urged an all-mail primary later this month.

“Up until a month ago, if you asked me what the big divide was over mail voting, I would say it was geographic, not partisan,” said Lawrence Norden, director of election reform at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. The method is much more prevalent in the West, while east of the Mississippi, even some deep blue states (including New Jersey) have relatively little mail-in voting.

At stake for both parties is what an expansion of mail-in voting this summer means for November. If more people vote by mail now, they may want to vote the same way in the fall, especially if the virus is still a concern.

Following Wisconsin’s primary where thousands of voters were unable to receive absentee ballots in time and people waited in long lines, several states shifted to all vote-by-mail primaries. Several counties in southeastern Pennsylvania have asked Gov. Tom Wolf to conduct the state’s June 2 primary entirely by mail.

Partisan polarization is evident. National Democratic Chair Tom Perez said Monday on a press call that Republicans are forcing voters to choose between “danger and disenfranchisement.” Republicans say Democrats are capitalizing on a pandemic to relax voting regulations which could be abused.

“Democrats are attempting to use this crisis as a way to get wholesale election changes that fit their far-left agenda,” said Mandi Merrit, RNC national press secretary. “While the RNC of course supports efforts to ensure that no voters are disenfranchised due to emergency protocols, national vote by mail would open the door to its own set of problems, such as potential election fraud.”

Trump, despite voting by mail in 2018, has said, “Mail ballots, they cheat. People cheat … Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they’re cheaters.”

Nonpartisan voting experts have scrambled to disprove claims that vote by mail is more susceptible to fraud. Election fraud is exceedingly rare and minuscule compared to numbers of votes cast. States that conduct entirely mail-in ballot elections report very little fraud.

There is also no evidence Democrats have an advantage when more people vote by mail. Since the onset of the coronavirus, some experts have theorized that more elderly voters might opt for mail voting, which could benefit Republicans, given the party’s advantage among seniors.

In states that have vote-by-mail, turnout does go up but it tends to increase among “low propensity voters,” said Sarah Niebler, a professor at Dickinson College. “It’s people who aren’t hardcore voters and those voters tend not to have strong partisan attachments, which almost by definition means they cancel each other out,” she said.

An implicit argument Trump is making, Niebler said, is that lower income people and people of color who don’t vote regularly and who tend to align more with Democrats, will vote by mail, helping Democrats. While that also has not been proven, the political party system was built to adjust, Niebler said. “If there was a short-term benefit to one party, I have no reason to expect that would be a long-term benefit.”

Trump’s comments echo a larger concern among Republicans that turnout on the whole benefits Democrats. Republicans are spending $10 million this year on legal battles fighting attempts to expand voter access in key states such as Michigan, Florida, Arizona and Minnesota.

Nationally, Democrats in Congress want $2 billion to expand vote by mail. They’re arguing for automatically sending absentee ballots to every registered voter, requiring every state to offer no-excuse absentee voting and expanding early voting. Congressional Republicans are opposed.

“I can’t understand the resistance to empowering the average American to vote,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., one of the Democrats leading the push.

Elected officials from two of Philadelphia’s collar counties — Montgomery and Chester — wrote to Gov. Wolf last week asking that the state’s primary be held entirely by mail.

To do that, the Republican controlled legislature would need to pass legislation.

While the legislature last month passed a bill to move the state’s primary, allow early counting of absentee ballots, and relocate polling places, there’s no indication of support for an entirely mail-in primary.

Republicans in the House blocked a provision that would mail every Pennsylvanian an application for a mail-in ballot, pushed by Democratic Rep. Kevin Boyle.

“It was formerly a nonpartisan issue that was more about process,” Boyle said. “Critics were people who believed in the value of in-person voting, that there was some civic responsibility demonstrated. Unfortunately, then the president weighed in and you started to see Republicans fall in line.”

Mike Straub, a spokesman for the house Republicans, said Republican members want to see how the slate of changes work before adding more.

“This all just happened the last week of March,” Straub said.

Locally, feelings among those who actually run elections are more nuanced.

Chester County’s commissioners are in bipartisan agreement the primary should be conducted entirely by mail, but Philadelphia’s election commissioners are still weighing options.

Montgomery County’s three commissioners are divided along party lines, with the two Democrats calling vote by mail the “only responsible way to conduct an election” during a pandemic and the lone Republican, Joseph Gale, objecting.

“The far-left has shown they will stop at nothing to remove President Trump from office,” Gale said. “After witnessing Democrats rally behind a completely bogus impeachment earlier this year, it would not be surprising if they resort to voter fraud to try to stop President Trump’s re-election.”

But in Berks, Leinbach, the county chair, said the logistics of an in person election make no sense.

When essential businesses closed, Berks lost polling locations. Churches and schools have called saying they no longer want to host voters on election day. And Leinbach worries about elderly poll workers, some of whom he knows.

“I’ve heard all the theories … pray for bad weather because conservatives show up and liberals don’t,” Leinbach said. “I think we get too caught up in, if we change this, this is going to benefit this group … the foundation of our republic is the secret ballot and the secret ballot has changed over the years.”

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Philadelphia Inquirer staff writers Jonathan Tamari and Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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