Many reasons have been given for Donald Trump’s failure to win a second term in the White House in 2020. A supermajority of Republican voters believes the results were not on the up-and-up. And while that assessment is debatable, other outsized factors are not. It is inarguable that the onset of the once-in-a-century pandemic, the consequent economic peril and deaths of hundreds of thousands together with the overnight radicalization of the political climate in the aftermath of the George Floyd affair did untold damage to the 45th president. And while there was little Trump could do about any of it, there was a crucial factor that Trump did control: his message to supporters that mail-in voting is inherently corrupt and should be avoided at all costs in favor of in-person voting on Election Day.
When the smoke cleared, a shockingly low 25% of the electorate had followed his plea – more than 100 million people voted early – in an election that shattered all records for turnout and handed a reported 81 million votes to an elderly opponent who was largely hidden away. Indeed, Trump was drowned by a veritable tsunami of unconventional voting. Thus, it is hardly a stretch to conclude that Trump sent what proved to be exactly the wrong message on mail-in voting, and may well have cost himself four more years in the White House.
Mail-in Voting: Panacea or Trap?
So if he wins the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, will Trump, or another GOP nominee, reverse course and actually urge the rank-and-file to do exactly what they were instructed not to do last time around? The answer is yes. The party has unveiled a major initiative called “Bank Your Vote” urging its voters to participate in “ballot harvesting” where it is legal, allowing a third party to collect and submit ballots. Trump supports the strategy, saying the Democrats’ overwhelming advantage in early voting leaves Republicans with “no choice” but to get on board a train that left the station years ago. As explained by Ballotpedia, ballot harvesting is legal and widespread in well over half the country:
- 24 states and D.C. permit someone chosen by the voter to return mail ballots on their behalf in most cases
- 14 states specify who may return ballots (i.e., household members, caregivers, and/or family members) in most cases
- 1 state (Virginia) explicitly allows only the voter to return their ballot
- 11 states do not specify whether someone may return another’s ballot
Trump’s rival Ron DeSantis, who openly pronounces his plans to harvest ballots wherever possible in upcoming Republican primary contests, proved the value of harvesting by embracing the practice and rolling up the score in his landslide re-election as governor of Florida in 2022. “I think telling people not to send in a mail ballot is a huge mistake, and it ends up reducing the pool of prospective voters,” DeSantis said in a recent interview with conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.
You might say the decision to actively participate in ballot harvesting should be an easy one. If Republicans’ vote totals can possibly be increased by embracing a distinctly 2020’s-style strategy like Democrats urging their voters to cast ballots early and often, as they say, why would they not do it? That’s where the messaging becomes tricky.
Since Trump loudly declared mail-in voting to be corrupt, how does he now convince his voters of the opposite? What can he say to assure his supporters that their ballots will not be contaminated by Democratic vote counters? As The New York Times headlined it, “G.O.P. Leaders Embrace Early Voting, but Will Their Base Get on Board?” That may be the 64-million-dollar question (adjusted for inflation) surrounding the 2024 presidential race.
On top of the skepticism of Republican voters, there are other arguments that can be made against what critics call a cynical bow to a realpolitik-infused embrace of mail-in voting. First off, a lot can happen between the time people cast an early vote and Election Day. In Pennsylvania, millions had already cast ballots – as early as September – by the time they were aware that one of the two candidates was a severely addled stroke victim – and Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) won by four points. Could he possibly have been elected without those early votes?
But what if voters return to their pre-pandemic pattern of in-person voting? There are few if any signs that such a thing is happening. The convenience factor is just too significant. That genie has left the bottle.
What if the nominee and the party direct substantial resources to an effort that ultimately bears little fruit, and consequently invests less than it should in traditional forms of electioneering that have proven successful in the past? Well, as the 2020 and 2022 elections demonstrated, higher turnout does almost always favor Democrats. Community organizers can effortlessly harvest untold thousands of ballots among heavily Democratic urban populations that are ordinarily apathetic about voting on Election Day. Whether the GOP can quickly make up for lost time in a field entirely new to them is very much an open question.
But beyond that, if so many are legitimately worried on a larger scale that ballot harvesting ultimately represents a dire threat to election integrity, and thus the republic itself, is it the right thing to do? The highly respected site The Federalist reflects the conundrum facing conservatives. One of its recent articles entitled “Conservatives, Get Busy Ballot Harvesting Or Get Busy Losing” asserts that Republicans “will lose if the party isn’t prepared to get down in the mud and beat the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at their own dirty game: ballot harvesting.” But that is offset by another piece on the site headlined, “Republicans Should Not Bet On Ballot Harvesting,” which argues that, because of the Democrats’ years-long experience in the practice and urban foothold, “Republicans are at a fatal disadvantage in the ballot-harvesting game.”
To harvest or not to harvest, that has been the question that cannot be ignored by the GOP in the wake of their disappointing outcomes in the last three election cycles dating back to 2018. Our political system exists on both timeless principles and expedient practice. And while conservative ideals on how elections should properly be conducted in our constitutional republic are at stake, like it or not, when it comes to the 2024 election at least, practice will trump principle.
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