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As Trump disputes election results, Republicans target voting by mail

  • NEW YORK TIMES / NOVEMBER 2
                                Absentee ballots are processed the day before Election Day in Atlanta.

    NEW YORK TIMES / NOVEMBER 2

    Absentee ballots are processed the day before Election Day in Atlanta.

WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump’s barrage of losses in court cases trying to undermine the election has not stopped Republicans from turning to battles they might be able to win — attempts to limit or undermine the future use of the vote-by-mail ballots that so infuriated Trump.

Absentee ballots constituted nearly half the votes cast in the 2020 election, and the experiment in mass voting by mail has been viewed by election experts as a remarkable success, one that was less prone to errors than expected and had almost no documented fraud. But that has not stopped Republican critics eager to follow the president’s lead.

This week in Georgia, as the president rages against the election he lost and the members of his party who oversaw it there, Republican state senators promised to make getting and casting mail ballots far more difficult.

The Georgia state senators pledged Tuesday to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, require a photo ID to obtain a ballot, outlaw drop boxes and scrap a court agreement to quickly tell voters about signature problems on ballots so that they could be fixed.

Republicans were pressing that cause on other fronts as well: The national and state parties filed a lawsuit in Atlanta seeking to curtail the use of drop boxes in next month’s runoff elections for the U.S. Senate. The suit claimed it was illegal to let absentee voters deposit ballots after business hours.

And Georgia has company. In Pennsylvania, Republicans preparing for the legislative session that convenes Jan. 11 are seeking co-sponsors for bills to stiffen identification requirements for mail ballots, tighten standards for signature matching and, in one case, to repeal the law that allows anyone to vote absentee without an excuse.

Michigan Republicans have signaled that they want to review a 2018 ballot initiative approved by two-thirds of voters that authorized no-excuse absentee balloting as well as same-day registration and straight-ticket voting.

Texas already has some of the nation’s toughest restrictions on voting by mail. But Republicans have filed bills in advance of next month’s state legislative session that would crimp officials’ ability to distribute absentee ballot applications and even make it a felony to offer to help a voter fill out a ballot.

But rather than a problem to be fixed, most election experts say mail ballots — the backbone of voting in Western states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Arizona — helped propel a record turnout, even amid the pandemic.

“The campaign to delegitimize and overturn the election has become a convenient justification for those who want to restrict access to voting,” said Wendy R. Weiser, who directs the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “Even those who acknowledge that the president lost the election are using the same kinds of allegations to roll back voting rights.”

In Georgia, despite the rush to amplify Trump’s outrage at the election result, election workers have twice recounted about 5 million ballots and found no evidence of cheating.

Federal and state courts have repeatedly thrown out the Trump campaign’s challenges to President-elect Joe Biden’s victory of fewer than 12,000 votes in Georgia. Similar court challenges to Biden’s victories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere have similarly failed to turn up fraud.

Yet for Republicans seeking to ward off Trump’s ire, none of that appears to matter. Some say they wonder whether they are hurting themselves more than their rivals.

For the November election, registered Democrats cast nearly 8 million more mail ballots than Republicans in those states that record voters’ party affiliation, according to the U.S. Election Project.

But conventional political wisdom holds that Republicans traditionally have voted by mail more often than Democrats, and many experts say any difference is shrinking as absentee voting becomes more popular. In this election, they say, Trump’s furious denunciation of voting by mail probably steered million of Republicans away from it.

“Trump soured them on voting by mail,” said Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan group that works to improve voting by mail. “By attacking the method of voting that was most popular this year, he may have depressed his own turnout.”

To be sure, not all the Republican pushback against voting by mail reflects support for Trump’s false claims. State Sen. Kathy Bernier, a Wisconsin Republican who heads the Senate’s committee on campaigns and elections, said she did not buy Trump’s conspiracy theories. But she said she rejected the idea that restricting easy access to mail ballots in the name of security would make it needlessly hard to cast one.

“I’m fed up with that argument,” she said. “You shouldn’t make it open for fraud in order to accommodate laziness, I guess, is a good term.”

And some experts say that backers of tighter curbs on mail voting are correct on one point: Mail ballots are more prone to manipulation than ballots cast in person, even if the amount of fraud in either case is minuscule.

“When I go into the voting booth on Election Day, no one’s going to help me or whisper in my ear,” said Trey Grayson, an elections expert and Kentucky’s former Republican secretary of state. “When a ballot is mailed, I don’t know who’s around when it’s completed.”

But he added that mail voting has election security advantages, too. States that vote largely by mail have more accurate and up-to-date voter rolls — an anti-fraud goal that Republicans embrace — because mailing ballots to voters effectively double-checks addresses and shows which voters have moved. It also appears to increase participation.

“I’ve always been really impressed that in off-year elections, states that have more voting by mail have a little better turnout,” Grayson said.

As for fraud risks, election experts say the biggest examples involve campaigns, not voters — most recently, in a 2018 House election in North Carolina where a Republican campaign worker directed a crew that falsely filled out and signed hundreds of ballots that had been sent to local residents.

That kind of organized fraud is very hard to conceal; signature checks and odd voting patterns quickly uncovered the North Carolina dodge. But fraud by individuals is hard, too: Signature checks also flagged attempts by two Pennsylvanians this year to request absentee ballots in the name of dead relatives.

In many states, discussions involving voting by mail are as much about making it more efficient than at pushing back against it. In both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, some Republicans as well as Democrats are considering relaxing rules laid down earlier by Republican legislators that effectively kept election workers from processing most mail ballots until Election Day.

Those restrictions delayed the release of absentee vote results, fueling conspiracy theories when mail ballots turned out to favor Biden.

Other states will evaluate a bevy of local quirks that gummed up the mail ballot process this year. Rhode Island is considering replacing the envelopes that keeps ballots secret with secrecy sleeves to speed processing, as well as other privacy-protecting changes. Vermont may automatically send ballots to people who regularly vote by mail instead of making them request one before every election, a convenience that has worked well in states like Arizona where most voting is absentee.

Legislators in dozens of states could take up one of the most common issues involving mail ballots: whether voters should get a chance to correct issues like forgotten signatures before their ballots are tossed. Eighteen states have laws allowing voters to “cure” erroneous ballots, although some others made exceptions this year.

The tinkering, both election experts and legislators say, indicates that while some Republican-controlled states could throttle voting by mail, the surge in absentee ballots seen last month is likely to become a permanent fixture elsewhere.

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