Elections

The RNC wants Republicans to embrace early voting. Trump’s rhetoric makes it tough

The RNC wants Republicans to embrace early voting. Trump’s rhetoric makes it tough

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Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel gives a speech in 2023. The RNC is urging Republican voters to embrace early voting, even as conservative leaders continue to rail against the practice.

Jae C. Hong/AP

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Jae C. Hong/AP

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel gives a speech in 2023. The RNC is urging Republican voters to embrace early voting, even as conservative leaders continue to rail against the practice.

Jae C. Hong/AP

When Madison Gesiotto Gilbert ran for Congress in Ohio in 2022, it was in a fairly competitive district that Republicans were hoping to flip. Gilbert thought she had good odds of winning that race.

She lost. And she has a theory about what happened.

“We got killed on the early vote,” Gilbert said. “And this is something that I think across the country there’s been a stigma within the Republican Party about voting early.”

Gilbert, who is now a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said too many Republican voters that year waited to vote in person on Election Day. That includes voters who live in states with weeks of in-person early voting and no-excuse absentee/mail voting.

“I personally am not the biggest fan of early voting, of election season, as we call it now,” she told NPR. “But the reality is, it’s here and in a lot of places it may be here to stay. So until things change in the states prospectively, we have to be playing the same game that the Democrats are playing in order to win.”

Ahead of this year’s elections, Gilbert and the rest of the RNC are trying to get GOP voters comfortable with early and mail voting. But to do that, they have to counter a stigma, particularly against mail voting, that was created by Republicans themselves, including — most notably — former President Donald Trump.

Trump complicates the “Bank Your Vote” campaign

To get Republicans comfortable with those voting methods, the RNC has launched a “Bank Your Vote” campaign. As part of the initiative, the RNC launched websites for all 50 states, as well as websites in different languages aimed at various minority communities. And GOP candidates are being asked to direct their voters to the websites.

This past summer, Trump recorded an ad for the campaign.

But despite endorsing Bank Your Vote, Trump has continued to cast doubt on the legitimacy and security of mail voting in particular.

Just on Monday, in a speech after winning the Iowa caucuses, Trump criticized both mail and early voting.

“You know, we have these elections that last for 62 days,” he said. “And if you need some more time, take as much time as you want. And so many bad things happen. We have to get rid of mail-in ballots because once you have mail-in ballots, you have crooked elections.”

This is baseless. There’s no evidence that mail voting leads to widespread election fraud.

GOP state lawmakers across the U.S. have also continued to propose and pass legislation aimed at restricting access to early and mail voting. That includes states like Texas, which passed new ID laws for mail ballots. Florida and Georgia are among the other states to pass new restrictions on mail voting.

Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs for government accountability group Common Cause, said members of the GOP mostly have themselves to blame for the growing stigma around early in-person and absentee voting.

“Getting voters to unlearn or unhear those messages is, you know, it’s tough to undo that damage,” Scherb said. “And so I think that’s what this Bank the Vote program is trying to essentially do. It’s somewhat analogous to getting a jury to unhear extremely damaging information that’s presented against the defendant.”

Mail voting stigma

Charles Stewart, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies how Americans vote, said there are a slew of reasons why the RNC’s campaign might not render the results Republican officials are hoping for. He said skepticism about mail voting in particular is fairly deep-seated among some voters.

“Republicans have always been much more likely to believe that fraud was a problem, that it occurred — and much more likely to believe it’s more important to secure the election than it is to pass laws to expand participation,” he said. “So, I mean, in some ways it’s kind of surprising it took Republicans so long to develop a skepticism about voting by mail.”

Stewart said he also isn’t sure the RNC is the right messenger for this campaign.

That’s because messages about voter fraud and mail voting aren’t just coming from political campaigns. He pointed to grassroots organizations across the U.S. warning voters that ballot “harvesting” and mail voting are fraudulent.

“And they’re going into mostly rural counties, Republican strongholds, and giving this message,” Stewart said. “And so the other set of people that [the RNC] needs to corral are the grassroots activists who are making millions of dollars selling the message of voter fraud. And the problem in reining them in is that they are almost as skeptical of the RNC as they are of the Democratic Party.”

Political costs

But Gilbert said it’s essential for the RNC to figure out ways to tackle this problem ahead of this year’s elections.

For one, she points out the GOP spends a lot more money on voters who wait until the last day — Election Day — to cast a ballot.

“If they get out early, we’re not going to spend as much money on them,” she said. “So it may be around $5 that we spend on that voter. If they don’t get out early, however, if we keep having to chase them, we keep having to phone them to nail down, to reach them, to try to get them out to vote, we’re continuing to spend money over and over and over on the same voter.”

Gilbert says if more core Republican voters cast their votes early, the party could use its resources on voters who might need more persuading.

“It’s all about conserving resources that we can then use to transfer to a different chase,” she said. “Yes, we want you to vote early, but why? Because we’re able to target others as a result. And that’s how we can change election results.”

And, Gilbert said, it’s very risky for the party to have so many voters planning to vote on one day. “Sometimes things do happen on Election Day and you can’t vote,” she said.

Just look at Monday’s Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa, where there were subzero temperatures throughout the state. This year, roughly 110,000 people showed up to vote at the in-person events. That’s compared with the caucuses in 2016, when a record 186,743 Republicans voted.

And in battleground states, just a few votes could make all the difference.

Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, said he thinks that Republicans lost recent state Supreme Court elections and a recent gubernatorial election partly because of their voters’ aversion to early voting.

“There is, I think, a realization on the part of some of them that they had better begin to do the things that progressives and Democrats are doing to turn out the vote if they want to carry the state for Trump or if they want to win a gubernatorial election in the near future,” he said.

Heck also predicts there will be a lot of “tension” within the party over early and mail voting as November gets closer.

“I think there’s going to be, if not an outright rupture, at least some pretty serious words back and forth between Republicans who are trying to encourage early voting and then those who just claim that early votes and absentee votes are all fraudulent,” he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”