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MIAMI — President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric against mail-in voting is causing a big problem for Florida Republicans, who once dominated the practice here.
So the state GOP came up with a solution: They doctored one of Trump’s tweets on the issue to remove the stigma.
In a mass-solicitation designed to boost flagging interest in registering to vote by mail, the Republican Party of Florida featured a Trump tweet from June 28 that praised absentee ballots but that had his opposition to mail-in voting strategically edited out.
“Absentee Ballots are fine. A person has to go through a process to get and use them,” Trump said in the tweet. The rest of the quote was blurred out: “Mail-In Voting, on the other hand, will lead to the most corrupt Election is USA history. Bad things happen with Mail-Ins. Just look at Special Election in Patterson, N.J. 19% of Ballots a FRAUD.”
There’s no difference between mail-in voting and absentee ballot voting. Trump is claiming a distinction that does not exist, all the while exaggerating the fraud risks, prevalence and effects of voting by mail.
Absentee Ballots are fine. A person has to go through a process to get and use them. Mail-In Voting, on the other hand, will lead to the most corrupt Election is USA history. Bad things happen with Mail-Ins. Just look at Special Election in Patterson, N.J. 19% of Ballots a FRAUD!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2020
Some Republicans privately fear the president is hurting his reelection chances — and the standing of the state party — by endangering one of the secrets to the GOP’s electoral success in Florida, where voters do not need an excuse to request or cast a ballot by mail.
In a statement, Florida GOP Chair Joe Gruters said the party blurred out part of Trump’s tweet concerning mail-in voting to avoid confusing state voters.
“The mailer was merely highlighting the portion of the tweet that is relevant to Florida,” Gruters said, noting that Trump equates mail-in voting to “an all-mail election to which the RPOF and President Trump remain staunchly opposed to."
Don’t confuse Florida’s system of voting by mail with other states,” he added. Gruters also said the party “agrees with the president that absentee balloting also known as Vote by Mail is safe and secure.”
On Tuesday evening, Trump again muddled absentee ballots, mail-in voting and all-mail elections together. He criticized California, which is planning an all-mail election in November because of the coronavirus pandemic, but then he twice referenced a fraud case in New Jersey, which is not an all-mail election state.
“I'm very worried about mail-in voting because I think it's subject to tremendous fraud and being rigged,” Trump has said, discounting studies that show otherwise.
But Trump’s rhetoric has had an effect that could hurt Republicans and his own candidacy.
Today, 423,000 more Florida Democrats than Republicans are signed up to receive absentee ballots, according to the Florida Democratic Party. The Republican Party did not dispute the number.
“It’s sad that the GOP’s strategy to win an election is to scare the living s--- out of the base with deceptive lies and conspiracy theories. It’s working for now, but it’s a bad long-term strategy that will hurt the party in the future,” said a Florida Republican consultant who has worked in state politics and shared the absentee-ballot request form with POLITICO. “A simple Google search will tell you that ‘absentee’ and ‘mail-in ballots’ are the same exact thing.”
Election law expert Rick Hasen said there’s different terminology in different states surrounding voting, but he’s unaware of any official or state that shares Trump’s distinction between absentee and mail-in voting, which fact-checkers have rapped Trump over as well. Also, Hasen said, there’s been no evidence of widespread fraud in all-mail election states.
Officially, the Florida Legislature changed the term “absentee ballot” to “vote-by-mail ballot” in state law in 2016. But after decades of common usage, the term “absentee ballot” is still utilized interchangeably by political insiders and activists. After all, the act of voting by mail from home requires being absent from the physical voting precinct.
For decades, registered Republicans have been outnumbered by registered Democrats in Florida, yet GOP candidates have won statewide, partly because of the strength of the GOP’s absentee ballot program. In 1988, for instance, absentee ballots were the key to Connie Mack’s U.S. Senate victory, a win that helped herald the coming Republican takeover of the Florida Legislature and Governor’s Mansion in the mid-1990s.
Florida Democrats learned from the GOP and started improving their vote-by-mail programs. By 2016, Democrats requested 8,800 more ballots than Republicans and, two years later, increased that margin to 47,300 — a number that more than doubled ahead of the state’s March 17 presidential primary. Now the disparity is nine times as much.
In March, Trump’s rhetoric against mail-in voting escalated as the coronavirus pandemic set in and more voters began casting ballots from home. At the time, congressional Democrats were pushing to help states expand absentee voting beyond the five states that currently hold all-mail election.
“They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” the president exclaimed on "Fox & Friends" on March 30. After that, Republicans across the country began equating Trump’s opposition to “mail-in ballots” with “all-mail” elections.
Today, there’s a sharp partisan divide over mail-in voting that could make the November elections even more challenging.
Republicans point out, however, that Democrats have historically failed to return mail-in ballots at the same high rate as GOP voters. Also, Democratic voters and those who typically favor Democratic candidates have a higher rejection rate when casting absentee ballots, often for failing to sign the envelope that the ballot came in, studies show.
In Florida general elections, about one-third of ballots are cast by mail, a third are cast during early in-person voting and a third are cast on Election Day. If Republicans continue to reject absentee ballot voting, it could put more stress on the party to physically turn its voters out at the polls — running the risk of increasing infection rates during the pandemic.
Trump’s assault on mail-in voting has also led to uncomfortable questions about the Florida voting habits of those within his administration.
A newly minted Florida resident himself, Trump voted by mail in the March 17 primary, saying later that “if you're President of the United States and if you vote in Florida, and you can't be there, you should be able to send in a ballot.”
Trump could have voted at in-person early voting spots while he drove past them on his way to golf in West Palm Beach, but he opted not to.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has repeatedly voted in Florida while out of state — including when she worked in Washington and had a New Jersey driver’s license that indicated she was not a Florida resident.
She said in May that the president believes “every American is entitled to vote the way that I did if you are someone who is working out of state, that your domicile is in a different state, you are absolutely entitled to request an absentee ballot and to cast your ballot by mail.”
Democrats are gloating over the GOP’s predicament.
“Donald Trump is proving more effective at suppressing Republican vote-by-mail efforts than Republicans are at suppressing Trump’s inconvenient tweets,” said Max Steele, a former Florida Democratic Party spokesman who is now a rapid response director for the liberal group American Bridge.