Mail-in voting: GOP victory in California undercuts Trump’s unfounded claims

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“So the problem with the mail-in ballots: It’s subject to tremendous corruption. Tremendous corruption, cheating,” Trump told reporters. “And so I’m against it.

Republican businessman Mike Garcia’s victory over Democratic State Assemblywoman Christy Smith in California’s 25th Congressional District race is not only a major victory for Republicans, but it also deals a blow to Trump’s contention that mail-in-only elections benefit Democrats and are ripe with fraud.

The special election was conducted almost entirely by mail because of the coronavirus. But even still, the Republican candidate, Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot, defeated Smith. Garcia currently holds a 12-point margin, but an unknown number of votes are still outstanding because of ballots that may have been mailed up until Election Day.

Smith conceded the race on Wednesday. But Trump continued to sow doubt about the integrity of the election, suggesting that Democrats would “dump a whole pile of ballots on your desk just before the election.” Experts say, contrary to Trump’s claims, voter fraud is rare, including with mail-in ballots.

Trump has repeatedly argued against mail-in voting and the Republican National Committee has engaged with Democrats in legal battles across the country to push back against efforts to expand it — including opposing proposals to mail ballots to all eligible voters, as California did.

Recent polling has showed most Americans support allowing everyone to vote by mail. But Republicans are more likely to disagree.

Yet the California race illustrates the degree to which Trump’s rhetoric on voting by mail is out of step with reality, even as his anxiety over the issue rises heading into the November general election.

Coronavirus threatens a guarded tradition for many black Americans: Voting in person

“There are studies out there that show that mail-in balloting is a political wash,” said one Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “Where the President’s focus should be is on same-day registration, especially changing the law during Covid, and ballot harvesting, where you have someone personally going to someone’s home.

“I think the advantage of vote by mail goes to the campaign with the best organization.”

The race may ultimately demonstrate the perils for Democrats in relying entirely on mail-in ballots, a format that could exacerbate lower turnout among the party’s base voters — including young people and minorities — who are already less likely to utilize mail-in ballots.

It was, in part, that rationale that prompted Democrats in the state to call for a new polling location to be opened in the city of Lancaster, which has a significant minority population, during the final weekend of voting.

On Saturday, Trump weighed in, this time to decry the opening of an in-person voting location in the district. He implied that state election officials were playing partisan games by opening an in-person voting facility in Lancaster, where previously there had been no in-person voting locations. The city’s Republican mayor supported the efforts to open the polling location within the final week of voting.

Trump also attacked the state’s decision to move to mail-in voting, even though Republican ballots were already being returned at a higher rate than Democratic ballots.

A national Republican strategist with knowledge of the race acknowledged that the election was conducted fairly but noted that Democrats didn’t attempt to ballot harvest, a practice of returning ballots on behalf of voters, in this race.

California mailed ballots to all eligible voters, including postage, both provisions that are being pushed by Democrats nationally to reduce barriers to voting. Ultimately, turnout is expected to match or exceed turnout in the March 3 primary, which had significantly more in-person voting and where election officials in the state described the turnout as “historic.”

National Republicans hailed the California race as proof that they had been able to boost turnout in a special election with elevated enthusiasm among their base voters.

Trump increasingly engaged in legal battles unfolding over mail-in voting

“Democrats did everything they could to try to rig this election for Christy Smith, but Mike Garcia prevailed through every hurdle that was thrown at him,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair.

Republicans and Democrats have long fought over election laws — with Democrats accusing Republicans of seeking to restrict voting by creating barriers for voters, especially voters of color. Republicans argue that they oppose provisions that lead to fraud, including ballot harvesting and eliminating signature-match requirements for mail-in ballots.

But the coronavirus pandemic has supercharged those legal battles. Democrats are filing lawsuits at a breakneck pace — seeking a series of revisions across the country to expand access to absentee ballots and to eliminate obstacles, including witness requirements and laws that require voters to have an “excuse” for obtaining absentee ballots.

Republicans have responded by pledging $20 million to combat those lawsuits. And CNN has reported that Trump has taken a particular interest in these legal battles, urging his political advisers to take a more aggressive stance.
At the federal level, House Democrats have proposed $3.6 billion in new funding to states to push changes to election procedures in light of the virus. That comes on top of $400 million that was allocated in previous bills to aid election officials as they adjust to the need to conduct elections during the pandemic.

But the new bill also proposes a slew of major revisions to procedures for federal elections that reflect some of the most aggressive changes being pursued by Democratic-leaning organizations in more than a dozen states.

Among the biggest proposals: The bill would require states to send absentee ballots to all registered voters in November and in the future when an emergency has been declared between 120 days and 30 days before an election. It would also require 15 consecutive days of early voting and that states begin processing ballots at least 14 days before Election Day.

These requirements would represent a major change to voting procedures for nearly every state, with the exception of a handful that already conduct their elections entirely by mail.

It would prohibit states from requiring “any form of identification” in order to provide a voter with a ballot, but allows voters to sign an affidavit certifying their identity. And it would prohibit states from requiring witnesses or notarization in order to return an absentee ballot.

On Wednesday, Trump called it “dead on arrival.”

“Basically, if you look at that package, what they want more than anything else is — it’s a voting package,” he said. “They want to be able to make sure that Republicans can’t win an election by putting in all sorts of mail-in ballots.”

These provisions are unlikely to be passed into law, but they reflect a majority of the proposals favored by Democrats and mirror the legal push being waged by advocacy groups and Democratic organization in states across the country.

And though Trump has signaled broad opposition to voting by mail, some Republicans on Capitol Hill say they support providing funds to states to make election-related changes, including vote by mail, even while they oppose Democrats’ proposals to mandate election law changes.

“It’s much easier to provide funding to the states to accommodate things like mail-in voting — and much more appropriate to do that than it is to federalize the elections and tell states how they have to do a job they will do better than a federal bureaucracy will ever do,” Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Wednesday. “I think there will likely be more money available for that.”

CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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