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'He's scaring our own voters': Republicans run into a Donald Trump problem as they push mail voting

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WASHINGTON – As the Republican Party chairman in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, Rohn Bishop isn't just working to get President Donald Trump reelected by again carrying the Badger State.

He has his eyes down-ballot where Republicans in his mostly rural county fight to hold on to a congressional seat and reclaim a pair of state Senate seats. Amid a raging pandemic, that means encouraging the Republican base to request mail-in ballots for the election in November.

Bishop said he's encountered a recurring problem: Many Republicans are "skittish" about voting by mail. He pointed to strong anti-vote-by-mail rhetoric from Trump, who regularly assails mail voting as fraudulent and an attempt by Democrats to "rig the presidential election." This week, Trump tweeted that mail-in voting would lead to the "most corrupt election in our nation's history!"

Bishop fears it's putting Republicans at a disadvantage.

"What the president is doing when he keeps saying that this mail-in balloting thing is fraudulent, he's scaring our own voters from using a legit way to cast your ballot," Bishop said. "We're kind of hurting ourselves, and I don't think that's the wisest way to go."

President Donald Trump warns that voting by mail opens the door for corruption.
President Donald Trump warns that voting by mail opens the door for corruption.

As Trump continues his crusade against mail voting, Republican parties in critical battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin aren't amplifying the same message. They promote voting absentee as a reasonable option if the pandemic continues in full force into the fall. Their success in convincing supporters could have a dramatic effect on the election's outcome, given the small margin of Trump's victory in 2016.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party's website includes a page dominated by a visual that reads, "Vote Safe: By mail. From home." The page explains why voting by mail is safe and says getting a ballot sent to voters' homes "is easy."

The efforts are in concert with the Trump campaign, which asked state parties to encourage voters to request mail ballots, party leaders in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin confirmed.

More: States push ahead on absentee voting even as Trump blasts Michigan over it

The website of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania encourages visitors to vote by mail.
The website of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania encourages visitors to vote by mail.

Some state party officials said they've had to work around Trump's messaging as they seek to match what they believe is an edge Democrats have with mail-in voting.

"I'm out there pushing it at the request of the campaign, because they asked me to do that, and then the president publicly is opposed to it," Republican Party of Pennsylvania chairman Lawrence Tabas said.

No presidential winner on election night? Mail-in ballots could put outcome in doubt for weeks

"I understand his point. I don't like mail-in balloting," Tabas said, insisting the president refers to states that don't have "security measures and protections" like Pennsylvania. But "it's a legal option. The Democrats outdid us (in mail ballots in the primary June 2), and if something happens in November and our people haven't applied, it could be an issue."

He said it can require some convincing: "I tell people, 'Look, you might as well apply for it. You don't have to vote by mail, but have it in case the governor or somebody pulls a last-minute stunt and that's the only way that you can vote.' "

Trump's distinction on absentee, mail-voting causes confusion

Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are among 34 states that offer absentee ballots to all voters without requiring an excuse. The coronavirus threat qualifies as a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot in most of the other 16 states.

Trump and Republicans have sought to draw a distinction between absentee voting – offered to seniors, the military, people with disabilities and others who are unable to vote in person on Election Day – and mail-in voting, in which ballots are mailed to all registered voters. Only six states utilize comprehensive mail-in voting.

Trump and his allies said he opposes only the latter, but the president is often unclear in his tweets. According to election experts, absentee and mail-in voting are fundamentally the same thing – voting from home.

'Nonsense': Election experts reject Trump's claim that foreign countries could counterfeit millions of mail-in ballots

In Florida, another critical swing state that has no-excuse absentee voting, the Republican Party sent mailers this month that featured a strategically scrubbed Trump tweet to encourage voters to request mail ballots, Politico reported. In yellow, the ad highlights Trump saying absentee voting is OK but edited out a portion of the same tweet where the president rails against mail-in voting.

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"Absentee Ballots are fine. A person has to go through a process to get and use them," says the portion of Trump's tweet featured in the ad. The ad blurs out the rest of Trump's remarks: "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!"

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Florida Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota, downplayed the editing, saying the party omitted the second half of the tweet because it was "irrelevant to the situation we have in Florida."

"When the president's talking about it, he's talking about a lot of the issues they have nationwide," Gruters said, adding that the party is "100% lockstep with the president" that "universal" vote-by-mail is bad and fraudulent. He said that in Florida, any voter can request an absentee ballot for any reason. "We took what was relevant to us and used it, so there's no need to confuse our own voters."

Asked whether Trump's criticism of vote-by-mail has turned off Republicans to voting absentee, Gruters said, "It's just a matter of making sure people understand the difference between universal and absentee."

USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll: Americans overwhelmingly support vote-by-mail push, but Republicans more wary

This month, Florida Democrats touted a 423,379 vote-by-mail enrollment advantage over Republicans. Republicans, who have historically dominated mail-voting in the state, did not dispute the figure but pointed to their own numbers showing "10 million voter contacts." Gruters said 1.27 million Republicans requested mail ballots for November

A statement from Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager didn't address concerns that Trump's criticism of vote-by-mail could discourage absentee voting among Republicans. She said Trump is "absolutely correct" about vote-by-mail, calling it a "brazen attempt by the Democrats to rig the November election."

Only Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington historically conduct elections entirely by mail, and California chose to send ballots to all voters in November because of the pandemic. Among the 34 states that allow no-excuse absentee voting, several opted to send applications to request mail ballots to all registered voters as a way to encourage at-home voting. In-person voting is still available in these states, but many cut the number of polling sites during recent primaries.

More: 'Do-or-die moment' to boost vote-by-mail for November election. But the politics is getting harder

'We need to stop complaining'

Months ago, vote-by-mail expansion became a rallying cry for Democrats nationally, from Michelle Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden down to local liberal groups.

Confidence in mail-in voting is divided along partisan lines.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found 78% of Trump supporters see mail-voting as “vulnerable to fraud,” and 17% view it as “adequately protected.” Among Biden supporters, 28% say mail-voting is vulnerable to fraud, and 54% say it is sufficiently protected.

Despite Trump's warnings, the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York School of Law said it's more likely for an American to "get struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud." Out of billions of votes cast across all U.S. elections from 2000 to 2012, one analysis found only 491 cases of absentee voter fraud.

Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to get Republicans elected in state legislatures, said, "Everyone should be concerned about voter fraud," but his party "must do a better job" of making sure Republicans understand they must vote even if that means by mail.

"At the end of the day, our job is to win elections," Chambers said. "And if people are going to be voting by mail, then we’d better do everything in our power to get them to understand that voting by mail is certainly better than not voting at all. So we need to stop complaining about how people are going to vote and start reminding people that they need to go vote, regardless of how they're going to be casting their ballots.

"Our job is to not bitch about the process. Our job is to win elections."

In Michigan, applications to request mail ballots for the general election and August primary went out to all 7.7 million registered voters – a move made by the state's Democratic secretary of state that Trump blasted in May even though several Republican-led states did the same during primaries.

More: Republicans, Democrats push ahead on absentee voting even as Trump blasts Michigan over it

In Michigan, 1.8 million voters requested mail ballots for the state's primary Tuesday, and more than 600,000 have returned their ballots, though the data isn't broken down by party. So far, 1.6 million mail ballots have been requested for the November election in Michigan.

State Republican Party chairwoman Laura Cox, who opposed mailing absentee request forms to all voters, said the party still encourages Republicans to vote by mail if they choose. A mailer the party sent to voters before the state's presidential primary in March included absentee applications, and it plans to promote the option for November. She said using the party's private dollars to mail applications is a "big difference" from the state doing it.

"We want our voters to know that if life gets in the way and they can't get to the ballot box that day, or if they are fearful, they don't feel comfortable, then they have absolutely the right to request an absentee ballot," Cox said. "The bottom line is the rules aren't fair, but we're going to play by the rules that were given."

Cox said she hears from a lot of Republicans who "don't feel confident with the process," fearing their ballots won't be received. Cox said she's "not worried" that Republicans might be more reluctant to request mail ballots than Democrats.

'It's making my job more challenging'

Previewing what to expect in November, states shattered mail-in voting and overall turnout records during primaries held since the pandemic started.

More: Michigan health experts urge voting absentee to reduce coronavirus risk on Election Day

Pennsylvania, which voted last fall to become a no-excuse absentee voting state, saw 1.5 million people vote by mail for its presidential primary June 2 – nearly 18 times the 84,000 who did in 2016, accounting for more than half the overall 2.87 million votes.

"Let's put it this way: It's making my job more challenging," Tabas, the Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman, said of Trump's rhetoric on vote-by-mail. "I have to explain why ... especially since I don't disagree with him in large part, but it's the law. That ship has already sailed."

Reluctance among Republicans to request mail-in ballots could present a problem for the GOP if the pandemic intensifies in battleground states in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

Tabas said he's not worried about it hurting Trump's chances in Pennsylvania where he said Republicans would "walk over coals" to vote for Trump. "Even if there's consolidation of the polls, even if there are risks because of the COVID, they will come out," he said.

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During Wisconsin's presidential primary in April, mail-in voting made up 74% of the overall vote, and nearly 1.2 million absentee ballots were cast. For the primary Aug. 11, the state mailed 734,000 ballots upon request and had received 203,000 back as of Wednesday.

About 700,000 Wisconsin voters requested mail ballots for the election in November. In response to the pandemic, the state will send applications in September to the remaining 2.64 million registered voters who have not already requested an absentee ballot.

"It's a part of our strategy," said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. He said the party will have mailings, phone calls and digital messaging urging Republicans to cast their ballot by mail, and the party intends to send absentee ballot applications directly to voters.

"Our voters have been slightly more reluctant," he acknowledged. But he said he doesn't believe Trump's resistance to mail-voting is "much of a challenge" in terms of outreach because voters understand the distinction between absentee and all-mail voting.

"We're doing this in conjunction with the president's campaign, and they're supportive of our efforts. So we're singing under the same hymnal," Jefferson said. "But we're all skeptical of all-mail-in elections and what that does."

He said some Republicans are "going to resist" and vote in person on Election Day, but he's not concerned as long as in-person options aren't dramatically reduced.

'I don't like it, but it's the rules'

Bishop, the Fond du Lac County Republican Party chairman, said the issue is more serious than the party establishment acknowledges.

"A lot of the inside Republicans, who understand politics and electioneering and work in the infrastructure, they'll whisper to me that I'm right, but they don't want to say it publicly because there's a backlash," Bishop said.

He said voters in the "most Trumpy towns" in rural parts of his county lack the nearby early voting sites like the state's big Democratic cities have. He said mail-in voting is a way for Republicans "to offset the Democrats' early voting advantage." But not if they don't take advantage.

"I think the president, not only is he hurting himself with his position, I'm terrified he's hurting down-ballot Republicans," Bishop said. "I think in Wisconsin, it's going to be close, and I want to make sure all Republican voters are able to vote."

Dave Turnier processes mail-in ballots May 28 at the Chester County Voter Services office in West Chester, Pa., before the primary election.
Dave Turnier processes mail-in ballots May 28 at the Chester County Voter Services office in West Chester, Pa., before the primary election.

He said most of the feedback he gets from Republicans "on the ground," through email, social media and conservative talk radio, is that he doesn't know what he's talking about and that he's ignoring the threat of voter fraud.

Go big or play it safe? Electoral map widens for Joe Biden and Democrats but with risk

Bishop said he counters that "there's actually no evidence that there's more fraud with the mail-in balloting than the regular balloting." They rebut with examples of people getting caught cheating, to which Bishop tells them, "You're kind of proving my point. We caught them."

"I try to go through it and why I think it can actually help us, but it's not like a 30-second answer," he said. "It takes me 10 minutes for me to explain it all and try to get people to understand why I'm pushing for it."

He framed it to fellow Republicans this way: Why give Democrats 10 days to vote by casting ballots by mail and Republicans just one day in person on Election Day?

"It's kind of like instant replay in baseball," Bishop said. "I don't like it, but it's the rules, so the manager of the baseball team better play by those rules and try to figure out how to win the baseball game. It's the same with the campaign."

Contributing: Maureen Groppe

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republicans have a Donald Trump problem as they push mail voting to base

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