As the 2020 general election countdown rapidly approaches the 100 day mark on Sunday, pandemic conditions continue to sweep the nation, forcing many Americans to reassess their approach to voting practices ahead of November, as available data seems to indicate that Democrats are leaning into mail voting in greater numbers than Republicans.
The aftermath of a hectic and unprecedented primary season -- one that largely forced election officials to factor health concerns into how elections were administered -- played a major factor in the apparent shift, and led to more voters requesting to cast their ballots by mail than ever before.
In the key battleground of Florida and Ohio, Democrats outpaced Republicans in absentee ballot requests during primary contests. North Carolina, another state that is crucial for the presidential electoral count, is slated to be among the first to mail general election ballots this fall. There, Democrats’ requests for absentee ballots currently top Republicans by nearly five times.
“Vote by mail is like locking up points, you’re scoring goals early,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, during a Thursday conference call with reporters.
“If you avoid vote-by-mail you are missing an incredible opportunity for your campaign. We do not know who or how people are going to be able to turn out in person [to vote],” he added in reference to the effects of the pandemic.
Although Dietrich’s comments were in response to a question specifically about the possible ramifications for Democrat campaigns if organizers do not focus on mail voting practices, his advice appears to be increasingly relevant for campaigns across the aisle as well, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s continued attacks against mail voting. With the last leg of the election year marathon underway, the president’s false claims about mail voting-related fraud could also risk undermining the elections run by members of his own party and have some Republicans concerned that the messaging coming from the White House could be dissuading their own voters from casting ballots.
Absentee vs. Mail Voting: "A distinction without a difference.”
In addition to upending the typical logistics of election year voting, the pandemic landscape has also severely altered the 2020 presidential campaign trail. In the absence of campaign rallies, the president has increasingly sought to sow doubts about the electoral process from his bully pulpit, with a particular focus on alleging a vast -- yet inaccurate -- difference between the meanings of “voting by mail” and “voting absentee.” During a press conference earlier this month, Trump described the former as a permissible action in his view, while alleging that the latter is ripe for problematic errors.
While there is a nuanced difference between the two phrases, voting experts agree that in practice, both terms are essentially two ways of referring to the action involving a person voting away from physical polling places.
“I think it's a distinction without a difference, rhetorically,” says Tom Ridge, a Republican who serves as the co-chair of VoteSafe, a nonpartisan organization that promotes safe voting access.
Ridge, who previously served as the governor of Pennsylvania and was the nation’s first secretary of Homeland Security, says the same process that is used to validate absentee ballots -- like confirming voter registration and validating the voter’s signature -- is also used to validate ballots directly mailed to voters in states that conduct mail voting. Currently, five states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, conduct their elections entirely by mail.
“Yes, there is a slight distinction there, even the all-mail ballot states out in the West, have procedures for absentee voting, and that's because the difference that we're talking about here is that the ballot would be sent to a person's residence when it's a mail ballot. When it’s an absentee ballot, a voter may be traveling abroad or in the military, for example,” says Michael McDonald, an elections expert and political science professor at the University of Florida. McDonald also noted that he hasn’t seen any kind of study specifically comparing the safety of casting absentee ballots to mail ballots.
According to Ridge, “there is absolutely no antecedent, no factual basis for [President Trump’s] claim of massive fraud” in mail voting. The former Republican governor of the crucial electoral battleground of Pennsylvania also assessed that the president’s rhetoric on mail voting is “counterintuitive” to a winning election strategy.
“I would say to the president, if you're trying to ensure that the Republicans maintain the Senate, and maybe have an outside shot of winning the House -- you're suggesting to the Republican officeholders and challengers that they abandon a tried and true, safe and secure method of balloting,” Ridge warned.
Current battleground numbers
Another battleground state Republican recently sounded the alarm about the kind of message the president’s rhetoric could be sending to fellow party members and voters alike. In the course of a handful of recent tweets, Rohn Bishop, the Republican chairman of Wisconsin’s Fond du Lac County, pushed back on Trump’s antagonistic rhetoric by saying that “Scaring our own voters away from a legit way to cast a ballot is such a bad idea, and could be devastating down ballot.”
“I'm doing this as a supporter and as a Republican, and not just [a supporter] of the president, of all the down ballot Republicans because if Republicans are afraid to vote, it's not only Donald Trump who's not getting their vote -- it's my congressman, my senator, my state assemblyman,” he said.
If early absentee request numbers are any indication, with about three months left until November, Bishop’s concerns seem to be manifesting across crucial battlegrounds.
Bishop’s home state does not register voters by party preference or affiliation, so the Wisconsin Election Commission does not provide a party breakdown of absentee ballot requests.
“If there's an older voter somewhere...who's afraid to go vote because of the pandemic but is also afraid that his or her mail ballot won't count because the president tweets that kind of stuff -- we're only hurting ourselves,” Bishop, who is a staunch Trump supporter, said.
As of Wednesday, in Florida, 210,593 Democrats had already cast mail ballots for the state’s August primary election, compared to 175,458 Republicans according to data provided by the Florida Division of Elections.
Last week, Florida Democrats announced more than one million Democrats had enrolled or renewed their vote by mail enrollment in the time since the March presidential preference primary. Currently, Sunshine State Democrats tout an enrollment advantage of more than 400,000 voters over Republicans.
“Usually the Republicans have had an advantage on mail ballot requests, or have been very close. The numbers have been inching up for Democrats requesting mail ballots overtime in Florida,” McDonald said.
A similar scenario appears to be unfolding in the battleground state of North Carolina, where according to data provided by the state’s Board of Elections, as of Thursday, 44,555 Democrats so far had requested absentee ballots for the November general election. At the same time, just 8,623 Republicans had done the same.
While there are still months to go until November, the Tar Heel State is slated to be among the first states in the nation to begin sending out absentee ballots in September. The 35,932 voter gap between parties could put a time crunch on Republicans to lock in voters amid evolving pandemic conditions.
Given the uncertainty of the evolution of the pandemic, this year’s political past could be a prologue for the general election.
The height of some of the nation’s first coronavirus outbreaks coincided with the lead up to Ohio’s delayed April 28 primary election. Weeks before election night, Trump made the claim on Twitter that mail-in voting was “ripe for fraud,” despite the state’s Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose already working to bolster mail voting efforts for the state’s newly converted to vote-by-mail election. A week out from the contest, LaRose announced that 1,667,883 Ohioans had requested a vote-by-mail ballot. Of the data available at the time, 866,104 of them were Democrats and 705,478 were Republicans. At that point, Democrats had also cast 88,000 more ballots than Republicans.
Although Ohio’s midwestern neighbor, Michigan, does not report a party breakdown for absentee ballot requests, as of Wednesday, the secretary of state’s office reported that absentee voter ballot statistics continue to grow ahead of the state’s primary next month, and more than 1.8 million ballots have been requested with more than 600,000 already returned. According to the secretary of state, those numbers represent a huge increase from the 484,094 absentee voter ballots that were cast in the 2016 state primary.
“The volume of absentee ballot requests and returns we’re seeing underscores the near universal enthusiasm Michigan voters share for casting their ballot in a way that is safe, secure and convenient,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement. “I am encouraged that this enthusiasm remains unaffected by attempts to spread misinformation about the integrity and security of voting by mail. The numbers make it clear that voters trust our system and are eager to participate in it.”
Data from at least two states that will serve as ground zero for high-profile Senate contests also indicate the likely impact of mail voting in this election cycle. As of July 17, 534,610 Democrats in Kentucky -- where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for reelection -- had requested absentee ballot applications, compared with 318,729 Republicans. In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins, the last New England Republican in either chamber of Congress, is facing her toughest reelection battle yet. There, McDonald’s data analysis indicated that 132,536 Democrats requested mail ballots for the June 14 primary, compared with 38,516 Republicans.
November outlook: 'Get them a ballot. Period. It's politics 101'
Like many other election experts, Ridge says voters should be preparing for the possibility of an “election week” rather than the typical “election night” come November.
“You get your supporters to the polls in any situation, but in the light of COVID-19, some of your supporters aren't going to vote in person, and you need to identify them and get them a ballot. Period. It's politics 101,” he said, adding, “It's surprising that the president is trying to really undermine his own party with those statements.”
According to McDonald, the aftermath of one party outpacing another in mail voting registration could cause ripple effects in the next election cycle.
“Florida has a type of system where a voter can request a mail ballot and that request is actually good through two general elections, so we’re talking about people requesting ballots now are actually good through 2022,” he said. “The Democrats [in Florida] in some ways have already done their voter mobilization, they got people already banked up, they know that a ballot card is going to be sent to them.”
Given the current data, McDonald offered a more concerning scenario across the aisle.
“It’s going to be more of a pins and needles sort of waiting game to see if their voters actually show up on Election Day,” he said.