Trump’s Anti-Mail-in Ballot Position Backfiring?

Are Republicans eschewing absentee voting?

President Trump and many of his surrogates have been relentlessly attacking mail-in voting for some time now. This may have an unintended consequence, as WaPo reports: Trump’s attacks on mail voting are turning Republicans off absentee ballots.

In several primaries this spring, Democratic voters have embraced mail ballots in far larger numbers than Republicans during a campaign season defined by the coronavirus pandemic. And when they urge their supporters to vote by mail, GOP campaigns around the country are hearing from more and more Republican voters who say they do not trust absentee ballots, according to multiple strategists. In one particularly vivid example, a group of Michigan voters held a public burning of their absentee ballot applications last month.

The growing Republican antagonism toward voting by mail comes even as the Trump campaign is launching a major absentee-ballot program in every competitive state, according to multiple campaign advisers — a delicate balancing act, considering what one strategist described as the president’s “imprecision” on the subject.

“It’s very concerning for Republicans,” said a top party operative, who like several others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing Trump’s ire. “I guarantee our Republican Senate candidates are having it drilled into them that they cannot accept this. They have to have sophisticated mail programs. If we don’t adapt, we won’t win.”

While it is true that Trump has stated that absentee voting is fine (after all, he, Pence, and the White House Press Secretary have all done it), he has been doing his best to demonize mail-in voting. The major problem is, of course, that absentee voting is mail-in voting and that the real issue that Trump objects to is the scale of mail-in voting in some states (or as had been proposed to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic).

But with the blunt instrument of tweets like this, it is no surprise if some GOP voters rightly connect absentee ballots to mail-in ballots (even as they incorrectly accept Trump’s assertions of the alleged pathologies of voting by mail):

It is too early to know if this rhetoric will have a substantial effect on GOP voters availing themselves of absentee ballots (or even of the ballot in general in vote-by-mail states. Still, the piece does provide some data that suggests a disparity in some primary voting on a partisan basis (but it is worth remembering that there might be multiple explanations):

In Virginia, 118,000 voters applied for absentee ballots for Democratic primaries June 23, while only 59,000 voters did so for the Republican primary — even though Republicans voted in a statewide Senate primary contest, while Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) was unopposed for his nomination.

Mail voting also soared in Kentucky’s June 23 primary; only about 10 percent of Democratic votes were cast on the day of the election, while 20 percent of GOP votes were.

Similarly, in Georgia’s June 9 primaries, about 600,000 voters cast mail ballots in Democratic primaries, while about 524,000 did so in Republican contests, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office.

The piece at least presents a reasonable hypothesis that Trump’s rhetoric could ulimately be damaging his re-election chances, as well as the Republican Party’s fortunes in general.

A potential frustrating side-effect of a November election wherein a lot more Democrats vote absentee than do Republicans will be that such an outcome will only reinforce in the minds of some in the GOP that mail-in voting favors Democrats.

Still, Trump’s approach could very much backfire on him.

Live by the simplism, die by the simplism.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. KM says:

    While it is true that Trump has stated that absentee voting is fine

    That’s a distinction without a difference to most MAGAts as voting while not physically present is all the same thing. Don’t expect them to understand nuance or function when the entire push “go do in it person or you’re anti-American”.

    Vote by mail is big out West and in rural areas because there simply aren’t any polling places. Military families are used to it as well. Trump’s lashing out at something many do regularly and see no harm in… when *they* do it.

  2. Teve says:

    In one particularly vivid example, a group of Michigan voters held a public burning of their absentee ballot applications last month.

    I’m going to have a smile on my face for the rest of the day.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This is simply setting the groundwork for disputing the elections results – little more.
    At the same time Trump is attacking mail-in voting, the Trump Campaign is encouraging mail-in voting.

  4. Slugger says:

    To me this is an outgrowth of the whole “vote fraud” scare that Republicans have been talking about for several years. The reason I put the term in quotation marks is that there have been very few documented cases of voting mischief. Once the faithful accepted the belief in voter fraud, it developed into the current situation. Mr. Trump controls the executive functions of the government and has appointed many judges. Where are the voter fraud cases?
    BTW, the people standing in line for hours in states that have few polling places in urban areas are Heroes!

  5. Michael Cain says:

    @Slugger: When I went through some of the databases of actual fraud cases, two things jumped out at me: (1) the prevalence of wholesale rather than retail fraud (ie, the local officials behaved improperly, not individual voters), and (2) absentee ballot systems in small rural counties where there are very few (if any) record-keeping requirements are an easy way to practice wholesale fraud. Contemporary vote-by-mail systems do so much record keeping that wholesale fraud using ballots becomes exceedingly difficult.

    That said, I believe that one of the things we will learn in November is that no-excuse absentee ballot systems where the voters have to request their ballot will not scale well: processing will take too long; record keeping will be screwed up; mistakes will not be corrected in a timely fashion. All of the states that I am familiar with that deliver ballots to a large fraction of their voters by mail use a permanent list of those voters so there are very few actual ballot requests to process.

  6. Joe says:

    For as long as I can remember in Illinois the only verification of voter identity is the signature. Even in person, we are not required to have ID, but the judges (presumably one from each major party) check it against the signature record. I don’t know what training they receive in that regard and I have no idea what the steps would even be if an in-person judge challenged a signature in good faith. In any event, mail-in ballots would presumably go through exactly the same signature vetting process. More manufactured outrage.

    ETA @Michael Cain: The other problem with scalability is that state law frequently requires that absentee and mail-in ballots not be opened until election day or even after polls are closed. I understand why, but that still bogs things down.

  7. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Michael Cain:

    the prevalence of wholesale rather than retail fraud

    Yes…election fraud, not voter fraud. The predominance of those cases were Republican officials and operatives.

  8. Neil Hudelson says:


    Disenfranchising yourself and/or contracting covid to own the libs.

  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    That Tiny’s anti-mail voting campaign would come back to bite him in the midst of a pandemic, is entirely predictable. A hint of the problem for repugs was evident in the Wisconsin primary where many older, reliably republican voters had difficulty navigating the mail-in application process.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  10. EddieInCA says:

    Moderators – I attempted to add a link to my comments, and it marked it as Spam. Can you please check it for me and release it. Thank you.

  11. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Legitimate question: Oregon et al have successfully conducted elections entirely via mail-in ballot (my understanding of how it works there) for years now. Have they seen appreciable increases in the rate or prevalence of fraud?

    It seems to me that this is a model that the entire country should be pursuing.

  12. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:
  13. CSK says:

    That happens to me constantly. I don’t know what the solution is.

  14. EddieInCA says:


    I don’t know what the solution is.

    I do. The solution is for the moderators to spend every waking moment tending to the site, so that my unbelievably smart, very powerful, tremendous post gets posted. They put it in moderation because maybe they don’t like me so much. But I’m used to that.

    I mean, people are saying they’ve never seen a post so powerful. It’s like something on one has ever seen before. They can’t believe it. Never in our nation’s history has a post so powerful been written, until I did it. People said I couldn’t do it. So I went to my people and told them that we needed a powerful post, and after getting their opinions, I decided to do it myself, since no one can do it as well as I can.

  15. Neil Hudelson says:


    You think the Fake OTB Moderators are going to help you? They’ve never seen so many beautiful Ivanka’s good looks with CHYNA. Trump is fighting against totalitalitarianishm and believe me it was a slippery ramp, you’ve never seen a ramp so slippery and steep. So I said to my general, I have the best generals, I said to him look *drinks small glass of water with two hands* and that’s why I put Don Jr. in charge of Trump instead of Eric. Sleepy creepy Joe Biden doesn’t even make sense when he talks anymore. If you vote for AOC, you’re going to have four more years, because people really like me, they really do.

    (I’ve been working on updating my written Trump impression, keeping up with his ongoing mental degradation.)

  16. Kathy says:


    Have they seen appreciable increases in the rate or prevalence of fraud?

    Of course they have, by the Republican/Trumpy definition of voter fraud: an election won by the democratic candidate.

  17. NW Steve says:

    Washington has had 100% mail-in voting for well over 10 years now. The history of fraud has been nil.

    Here is an interview with the WA Secretary of State on the subject (note: she’s a Republican). Short version: it will be hard to pull off at a national level, but fraud isn’t the problem.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    My new home state, FL, has widespread vote by mail, and has had for years. As have several key states. It was generally instituted by Republicans because data at the time said it favored Republicans. Now it may hurt them. Isn’t there a line about petards?


  19. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @NW Steve:

    Right. She’s saying it would be impossible to pull off before November. I completely agree with that sentiment. I didn’t see anywhere that she was arguing it’s intrinsically unworkable on a national level. Seems like we should be pursuing it to me.

  20. Michael Cain says:

    @HarvardLaw92: To put a number on it, the evidence from Oregon, Washington, and Colorado is about ten fraudulent ballots per million cast. This is somewhat higher than the fraud rate for in-person voting. Both are based on the number of fraud cases detected, and there’s some evidence that contemporary vote-by-mail systems are better at finding fraudulent ballots than poll judges are at identifying fraudulent voters.

    I am unaware of any studies comparing the two systems for the other type of error — the rates at which they reject ballots/voters that should have been counted. The number of unsigned return envelopes in Colorado is higher than anyone would like, and some voters can’t be bothered to correct that oversight even when given the opportunity.

  21. JohnMcC says:

    Thought about this briefly. Led me to wonder about Montana which has a pretty good chance to be the swing state in the U.S. Senate this November. Poked around the google. Discovered that there was a voter referendum there that declared no one voter can turn in MORE THAN SIX (!) ballots. It passed in ’18 with 64% of Montanans in favor. In a state that’s voted for a D-party President once since ’52.

    Makes you wonder how many ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional Republican’ positions and policies the current President is going to destroy and how much of ‘conservativism’ will be left after Mr Trump is gone.

    And incidentally, that law is blocked at present by a Federal Judge (District Court in Billings, Jessica Fehr presiding) because it’s unfair to rural Native Americans who often don’t have mail service to their reservation homes. So Montanan can bring to their election offices ANY number of their neighbors’ ballots.

    And just for fun, I looked at the results of the ’18 State election and it seems Mr Tester won pretty handily by carrying Helena and a few other cities (but not the biggest city Billings) and a scattering of peripheral counties which I assume are reservations.

    So I concluded of course that Mr Trump is indeed a stable genius who has devoted his administration to destroying the Republican party as it has been known for my lifetime.

  22. Sleeping Dog says:

    @NW Steve:

    Operationally there is no such thing as a national election, there are 50 state elections, that often have disparate rules and voter qualifications. Talk of a problems with national elections are a red herring.

    A state the currently has no provision for mail in ballots will have some confusion. In many states, absentee/mail-in ballots are handled like provisional ballots and not counted unless the margin of victory is less than the total number of mail/provisional ballots.

  23. Monala says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Yes, it’s just a matter of getting the safeguards into place, which takes time — more than the few months we have until November.

    The safeguards include barcoding each envelope with the intended voter’s identify information, and matching their signature with the signature on file. And a system in place for collecting the ballots (such as ballot drop boxes), reviewing the envelopes to make sure it’s an accurate match, then removing the ballots and counting them.

  24. Michael Cain says:

    @Monala: In my state elections are actually conducted by the counties. Large counties start getting their printing and envelope-stuffing contracts in place months in advance, and make arrangements with the USPS so that when pallets of ballots show up the USPS is prepared. It’s kind of a fascinating process — months to get ready and then all of the steps to distribute ballots happens very fast. Ballot contents are frozen, printers produce samples, samples are proofread in multiple ways, the big batch of ballots are printed, the envelopes are stuffed, and in our case, ~400,000 large envelopes are brought to the huge USPS facility. Sampling and auditing throughout to make sure things are working properly.

    As you say, we’re well past the time when states who haven’t done this before should have started getting ready. Hawaii switched to full vote-by-mail this year. They started working on it in July 2019, their primary this past May was their trial run, and they’ll fix whatever problems they may have encountered before the general election in November.

  25. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Absolutely. Trying to do this before November would likely result in a disaster. I’m just enamored of anything that increases turnout and makes it easier for people to vote. This seemed to me to be a relatively painless way to do both. You raise some good points. Logistically it’s more complicated.

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @HarvardLaw92: The problem with doing this “nationally” would be more in the line of there’s no “nationally;” there are 5o-however many entities that have to all pick up that particular rope and pull on it. How much each entity is committed to doing it is the choice of the leadership–both governmental and political–of each entity.

  27. Michael Cain says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: The Constitution does say,

    The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

    If Congress says “Representatives shall be chosen using ballots distributed to all registered voters by mail, two weeks before election day, to be returned by mail, through drop-off boxes, or in person to voting officials. If the states choose to use the same system to conduct the rest of their elections, the federal government will pick up half the cost,” all of the states will adopt vote-by-mail. State behavior can be purchased (see, for example, why all states choose to have compliant unemployment insurance systems).

  28. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Joe: For accurate information on when ballots are tallied you can refer to National association of State Legislatures.

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Cain: Interesting comment. I would suggest that it’s likely that such a law would end up in front of the Supremes, but that has its own appeal.(no pun intended) positive aspect.

  30. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Sleeping Dog: @Sleeping Dog:

    In many states, absentee/mail-in ballots are handled like provisional ballots and not counted unless the margin of victory is less than the total number of mail/provisional ballots.

    Also see When counting can begin in various states.

    In the table of states the word “margin” does not appear (I did not actually look at each and every state), it seems like this notion (tally only when close) is a myth

  31. HarvardLaw92 says:
  32. Michael Cain says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    In many states, absentee/mail-in ballots are handled like provisional ballots and not counted unless the margin of victory is less than the total number of mail/provisional ballots.

    Can you point to one? I’d be really surprised, and not just because “we don’t count all votes” sounds so un-American. There are so many places where something or other is tied to the total number of votes cast. Automatic recount triggers, for example, or thresholds for ballot initiatives (statewide, often some fraction of the total votes cast for governor in the previous election).

  33. An Interested Party says:

    The piece at least presents a reasonable hypothesis that Trump’s rhetoric could ulimately be damaging his re-election chances, as well as the Republican Party’s fortunes in general.

    Oh please…is there anything that Trump does (including breathing) that doesn’t damage his re-election chances, as well as the Republican Party’s fortunes in general?

  34. Console says:

    @Michael Cain:

    (1) the prevalence of wholesale rather than retail fraud (ie, the local officials behaved improperly, not individual voters)

    So the phrase “white privilege” gets thrown around a lot but things like this are something that I automatically come to. For conservatives (which are overwhelmingly white) the a priori assumption is that the system works.
    I posited this scenario to some conservative friends of mine:
    You walk into a polling location. The poll worker sees your party registration is Republican. They then say your ID doesn’t look like you so you’ll have to cast a provisional ballot.

    The scenario was inconceivable to them, even though American history is littered with the right to vote being quashed at the voting box. Hell, that’s America in a nutshell. White people giving the government more and more discretionary power, while assuming that discretion will never be used against them.

  35. de stijl says:


    We say “meh.”

    Super obscure Simpsons quote.