Already, several states that have held or delayed their primaries have confronted this question, and a coronavirus relief bill recently provided funding for expanding the practice. But the amount was far less than Democrats sought, with Republicans balking at the idea of vastly expanded vote-by-mail. The GOP has long argued vote-by-mail is more susceptible to fraud and is thus to be avoided — though Trump indicated recently that he worried more about higher turnout that would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
But a new poll reveals something interesting about the GOP opposition to vote-by-mail: Republicans who actually have lots of vote-by-mail in their states overwhelmingly support it.
The Pew Research Center survey finds that people are already worried about the November election, with two-thirds saying it’s at least “somewhat likely” the coronavirus outbreak will disrupt it.
When it comes to remedies for that, there is a predictable partisan split on vote-by-mail. While 7 in 10 Democratic-leaning voters support handling all elections by mail, just 3 in 10 Republican-leaning voters agree. When the proposal is to keep in-person voting but to let anyone who wants to vote by mail do so, support rises on both sides — but still just 49 percent of Republican-leaners support that idea.
Then comes the interesting split. Pew broke down responses to the second question — about letting people vote by mail if they prefer to — by the prevalence of vote-by-mail in the respondent’s state. Democratic-leaning voters remained consistent between states with little vote-by-mail and lots of it. But with Republicans, there is huge variance.
In states that had very little vote-by-mail in the 2018 election, just 40 percent of Republican-leaning voters strongly or somewhat favor letting anyone vote by mail. That number ticks up to 47 percent in states with a medium amount of vote-by-mail. But when you ask GOP-leaning voters in states with lots of vote-by-mail whether they support it, the number leaps to 68 percent.
In other words, conservatives who live in states where it’s easier or more prevalent to vote by mail overwhelmingly favor it. The ones with the most experience with this method are quite happy with it.
It’s worth talking about which states are included in this group:
Those are the states that had at least 31 percent of votes cast by mail in 2018. While that’s five blue states and four red states, GOP-leaning voters in states such as California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington may lean less conservative than Republicans elsewhere. It’s also just nine states, but those nine states did account for 23 percent of all votes for Trump in 2016.
Whether that actually matters to the looming debate, we’ll have to see. If Republicans such as Trump truly believe this is something that could hurt them by increasing turnout, you can bet they will fight tooth and nail against it. Ditto if they genuinely think it might lead to voter fraud — despite there being very little evidence of that. (A North Carolina congressional race in 2018 was thrown into chaos after a consultant hired by the GOP candidate was alleged to have tampered with absentee ballots, but there are few such examples.)
But we’re already seeing some cracks in the GOP resistance, with Republican leaders in states such as Nebraska, Ohio and West Virginia pushing for expanded vote-by-mail in their primaries. Iowa’s Republican secretary of state has sent absentee-ballot requests to all voters ahead of a July special election.
Whether they will do the same for the general election, of course, is a different question. But New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), for example, has said he will allow voting by mail if the novel coronavirus is a problem in the fall.
These are decisions that are made at the state level, where officials will be more accountable if pushing forward with in-person voting winds up being risky. The prevalence of the coronavirus in the fall and other factors will determine just how risky that will be.
Wisconsin controversially went ahead with an election earlier this month. We found out last week that several people who participated in that election in Milwaukee later tested positive for the virus, but a new study suggests the state actually saw its overall coronavirus cases decline afterward.
That example — along with other states that have some in-person voting Tuesday, including Maryland and Ohio — will weigh heavily on whatever decisions are made about expanding vote-by-mail if the coronavirus remains a big problem in the fall. As will public opinion, especially if this is an idea that people begin to warm to.
And that’s precisely what’s been happening, according to the Pew poll. It showed the percentage of people supporting holding elections completely by mail has risen from 34 percent in 2016 to 52 percent now. And the percentage overall who support letting anyone vote by mail is overwhelming: 70 percent. That could make it harder for Republicans to continue to fend off this idea in the months ahead.