Trump’s attacks on early voting muddle Republican election plans

Gun Rights

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was traveling to a campaign rally aboard Donald Trump’s private jet in early April when he decided to broach the delicate issue of early voting.

As the Boeing 757 flew from Florida to Green Bay, Wisconsin, Johnson pressed the Republican candidate to use his speech to urge his supporters to cast their votes ahead of Election Day.

Early voting often draws a torrent of vitriol from Trump, who falsely claims it is vulnerable to fraud and cost him the 2020 election.

But Johnson is one of a number of senior Republicans – many of them in key swing states, like Wisconsin – who are worried that Trump’s demonizing of early voting could torpedo his hopes of winning back the White House on Nov. 5.

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“I encouraged the president to encourage Wisconsin Republicans to bank their votes,” said Johnson, adding he didn’t encounter any resistance from Trump. “I would recommend he get on board.”

“We have to do everything we can to fully utilize the rules as they are written. Democrats certainly have,” said the 69-year-old senator, himself a recent convert to early voting.

But not only did Trump fail to extol the importance of early voting at the April 2 rally, he told the crowd of more than 3,000 supporters that his goal was ultimately to limit voting to Election Day only, a message greeted with huge cheers.

And when Johnson – in his third Senate term – took to the convention center’s stage to urge Republicans to vote early, he was met with tepid applause from a just few people.

Supporters of early voting say it increases turnout and avoids the problems of people being unable to vote on Election Day because of bad weather, logistical issues at voting stations or personal reasons. Voters rights groups say there is no data showing early voting can lead to fraudulent ballots being cast.

At the last presidential election in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, early voting surged to new highs. And in the 2022 midterm elections, half of U.S. voters cast their vote before Election Day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

November’s election will be a closely fought contest between Trump and President Joe Biden, opinion polls suggest. The Democratic incumbent defeated Trump in Wisconsin by just 20,000 votes in 2020 and the state is again a major prize for both parties.

Not pursuing an early voting strategy in 2024 would be “political suicide,” said Brian Schimming, the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party.

Reuters spoke to Republican Party leaders in four of the likely seven battleground states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina. They told Reuters they are making a big push to encourage Republicans not to wait until Election Day to cast their ballots.

The newly installed leaders of the Republican National Committee (RNC) – Michael Whatley and Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump – insist the former president is on board with early voting.

“We urge all Republicans to go vote early, by mail, on Election Day, or whichever method works best for them,” Claire Zunk, an RNC spokesperson, said in a statement to Reuters.

But, as Johnson’s experience underscores, it’s not clear that voters are willing to embrace the new message after Trump’s repeated and continuing claims of fraud.

Suzanne Sliva, a 60-year-old entrepreneur from Lucas, Texas, said she views early voting with suspicion and believes it should be reserved only for exceptional circumstances.

“Voting is one day,” she said, while waiting for Trump to speak at a National Rifle Association (NRA) event in Dallas, Texas last weekend. “Everything gets counted in one day, and we know before midnight who the winner is.”

Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who has been analyzing elections data for over 30 years, said it would take a lot of messaging to change some voters’ minds, “most importantly from Trump himself.”

MIXED MESSAGING

Trump’s position, however, remains unclear. At a campaign rally in New Jersey on May 11, the candidate, for the first time in a speech this year, promoted early voting for the Nov. 5 general election: “Get an absentee or mail-in ballot, vote early or vote on Election Day,” he told supporters.

Yet in the same speech he said “mail-in voting is largely corrupt.”

And, at a rally on April 13, Trump likened early voting to “stealing” the vote. In March, he called mail-in voting a hoax.

In fact, he has called mail-in voting corrupt or a hoax at least 11 times in speeches this year alone, according to a Reuters analysis of his prepared remarks.

But away from the teleprompter, Trump has posted twice on Truth Social since mid-April that early voting is important.

“That is really not helpful,” said Oscar Brock, an RNC committee member from Tennessee and a supporter of early voting, referring to Trump’s mixed messaging.

Voting rights groups accuse the RNC of double dealing in publicly backing early voting. They note the RNC, Republican lawmakers in battleground states and conservative groups continue to pass laws and file lawsuits that restrict access to early voting.

The activists say these efforts disproportionately affect minority groups, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party in large numbers. Republicans deny the accusation, saying they are seeking to protect the integrity of the voting process.

Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung said the former president had always advocated for free and fair elections, “where every legal vote is counted and any instance of fraud is rooted out.”

“Democrats have proven they are willing to change voting rules during the middle of a pandemic that made our elections more susceptible to fraud,” Cheung said.

In the 2020 presidential election, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Democratic election officials in many states expanded early voting by adding ballot drop box locations, extending voting deadlines, and increasing the use of mail-in voting.

The Democratic National Committee is investing “tens of millions” dollars to promote early and mail-in voting this year, said Alex Floyd, the DNC’s rapid response director.

In 2020, 82% of Biden supporters voted early, compared to 62% of Trump’s, according to the Pew Research Center, an independent Washington-based think tank. Nearly twice as many Biden voters sent ballots by mail compared to Trump supporters, according to Pew.

SWING STATES

Despite the mixed messaging from Trump, the chairmen of state Republican parties in the four swing states told Reuters they are pressing ahead with an early voting push.

Josh McKoon, chairman of the Republican Party in Georgia, said the party on April 29 sent a video promoting early voting to 70,000 registered Republicans through social media and email.

In North Carolina, Republican chair Jason Simmons said the party is holding training sessions with county and district chairs on how to message voters on the importance of early voting, while in Michigan, Republican Party chair Pete Hoekstra is pushing early voting every time he speaks to grassroots activists across the state.

In Wisconsin, Schimming, the party chair, said top Republican officials in the state had released videos of themselves voting early in this year’s primaries to reinforce their message of casting ballots before Election Day.

And in Pennsylvania, the Republican State Leadership Committee, together with two other Republican groups, has launched a $10 million initiative to promote mail-in voting in the state, a push first reported by Reuters.

Turning Point Action, a conservative group once skeptical of early voting, says it plans to spend over $100 million in Wisconsin, Arizona and Michigan to persuade Republicans who rarely vote to cast ballots.

Andrew Kolvet, a spokesman for TPA, said they hoped a majority of those votes will be cast before Election Day.

LITIGATION

Celina Stewart, chief counsel for the League of Women Voters, a non-partisan voting rights group, said early voting makes the election process safer because it catches errors. Some 47 states use some form of early voting, she added.

But in five swing states this year – Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina – Republican lawmakers have either passed bills or introduced legislation aimed at restricting access to early voting 28 times, according to a Reuters analysis of legislation in state houses.

The bills sought multiple ways to restrict access to early voting. They included three provisions to eliminate early in-person voting altogether, 15 to make it easier to prevent people from voting early, and seven to reduce early voting locations, according to Reuters’ tally.

The RNC has also filed or supports 29 lawsuits aimed at restricting early voting, 17 of which concern voting by mail, according to Democracy Docket, a progressive voting rights group that tracks election-related litigation.

“Republicans are trying to turn out their voters and there is simultaneously a push to suppress the vote and restrict access to voting,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Research shows restricting access to early voting, “disproportionately reduces access and participation by voters of color”, Weiser said, because they often work multiple jobs, or lack access to transport, making their access to polling locations on Election Day more difficult.

Zunk, the RNC spokesperson, did not respond directly to Reuters’ questions about the lawsuits or legislative efforts but said the party was “dedicated to securing the vote across the country so all voters can have full confidence in a fair election.”

(Reporting by Tim Reid, Julia Harte and Nathan Layne. Additional reporting by Brad Heath and Gram Slattery. Editing by Ross Colvin and Daniel Flynn)

By Tim Reid, Julia Harte and Nathan Layne

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