Trump’s war against mail-in voting lacks Republican allies

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After Trump tweeted Monday morning that mail-in ballots would make 2020 the “most RIGGED election in our nation’s history,” CNN spoke with numerous GOP senators, including members of the GOP leadership team. None of them said they agreed with the President’s views on mail-in voting, and a number of them said they supported expansions as a way to deal with the coronavirus.

“I think it’s fine,” Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, said of the expansion of mail-in voting in her state. “It’s worked well in Nebraska. We had tremendous turnout in the primary in May. No issues that I’ve heard from our secretary of state. It’s worked well.”

Fischer was joined by several other Republican senators Monday who said they did not believe more voting by mail — which has been expanding in states in recent years and has accelerated since the coronavirus outbreak began — would unfairly rig the election.

Monday’s tweets were the latest attack Trump has made against mail-in voting, which he has called “stupidity” and falsely claimed leads to massive voter fraud, even as public-health experts in his own administration encourage voting by mail. The President has claimed without evidence, that there is systemic cheating with mail-in ballots and has made false accusations against states that are expanding absentee and mail-in options.
Last month, for example, Trump incorrectly accused California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of illegally sending ballots to every state resident including undocumented immigrants. But Newsom’s executive order, and a subsequent state law passed to bolster it, means only registered voters receive ballots in the mail.

On Monday, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told CNN he is supportive of states expanding mail-in voting. As chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Blunt helps oversee elections and responded “no” when asked if he thought the President should be saying the upcoming 2020 election could be rigged. Blunt did add that states that “dramatically change” their systems to include more mail-in voting presented a “challenge.”

Blunt added: “I am” when asked if he’s supportive of states expanding mail-in voting.

GOP Texas Sen. John Cornyn said the process for mail-in voting through absentee ballots has worked well in his state, though he said expanded mail-in voting is “not a panacea.”

“I’m confident that if there’s anybody who wants to vote in Texas, they are able to do so,” said Cornyn.

Asked if he shares Trump’s view about a “rigged election,” Cornyn said: “I think you know any method known to humankind is capable of being corrupted.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican and member of Senate GOP leadership, said she trusts mail-in voting, which is how half of the ballots were cast in the West Virginia primary elections earlier this month. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, where every registered voter is sent a ballot in the mail, said the process in his state “works great.”

When speaking to CNN’s John King earlier Monday, Sen. John Barrasso punted on Trump’s tweets about the topic, but later said voting by mail works in his state of Wyoming. Barrasso did claim there has been “evidence of election fraud in the past and we want to make sure that everything is on the up and up.”

There’s no evidence, however, that any fraud has been widespread or rampant in US elections.

It’s not just Capitol Hill Republicans. In a statement emailed to CNN, Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose, a Republican, said that both Trump and Democrat Joe Biden “need to stop” questioning the integrity of elections.

(Biden said earlier this month that his “greatest fear” was that Trump would try to “steal the election” — though he has not claimed the election is “rigged” as the President has.)

“In Ohio we hold ourselves to the highest standards when it comes to elections integrity,” said LaRose. “Hundreds of local officials from both parties work every day to assure elections are honest and secure in all of our 88 counties.”

The most blatant recent example of voter fraud happened in another swing state, North Carolina, when in 2018 a Republican operative working for the winning GOP House candidate was accused and later indicted of illegally collecting absentee ballots. The election was investigated and thrown out, prompting a special election in 2019.

Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the bipartisan elections board in North Carolina, told CNN there has been an uptick in interest in voting absentee by mail this year and that safeguards are in place to ensure fairness. The state legislature also passed harsher penalties for illegal ballot collection. Gannon said there are still concerns about misinformation regarding the legitimacy of voting by mail.

“It can certainly undermine confidence in the elections process and in particular absentee voting or by-mail voting. That’s how a lot of voters will vote this year,” said Gannon. “We ask voters in North Carolina to get voting information from trusted state and local sources.”

Trump has also openly argued that expanding mail-in voting will help Democrats defeat Republicans — an idea animating his most recent tweets that the process amounts to a rigging of the election.

It’s not clear, however, that expansion of mail-in ballots will benefit one party over the other. Numerous independent studies have confirmed that neither party automatically sees a major benefit when voting-by-mail is expanded. Older white voters, who were more likely to vote for Trump in 2016 and continue to favor the President in 2020, also make up a large portion of those who vote absentee.

Notably, Trump himself has voted absentee via a mail-in ballot in at least two elections since becoming President.

And there is already anecdotal evidence Trump’s campaign against mail-in voting is putting his reelection bid at a disadvantage. In Michigan, a virtual must-win state the President carried by a few thousand votes in 2016, Trump supporters burnt their absentee ballot applications, which were sent to all registered voters there, in protest.

One veteran Republican strategist in a swing state, who declined to speak on the record for fear of retribution from the state party chairman, said the President’s tweets don’t suggest a solid political strategy.

“I think it’s just trying to set a premise for being able to complain about a variety of things, non-existent voter fraud chief among them,” said the strategist. “I think it’s probably harmful overall, and it makes no sense strategically.”

Trump, who has been trailing Biden in both national and swing-state polls, has tried to discredit the previous election along much of the same lines. In October 2016, when he looked to be losing to then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump tweeted that “of course there is large scale voter fraud” happening. That same month, he also said at a rally in Wisconsin that he was competing in a “rigged election.”

Trump would go on to lose the popular vote but win the presidency by winning enough votes in the Electoral College — but not before many elected Republicans denounced their nominee’s characterization of the election as “rigged.”

Nearly four years later, GOP officials are still facing those sorts of questions about Trump’s rhetoric. Asked Monday if she agrees with Trump that the elections could be rigged, Sen. Fischer said, “Well you’d have to ask the President why he said that. I’m telling you in Nebraska it’s worked well and our secretary of state has said it worked well.”

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this story.

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