The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arizona Republicans encourage early voting after warning against it

Some in the party worry their assaults on early voting could ultimately suppress GOP turnout

A sign directs voters to a polling station entrance at the South Phoenix Moose Lodge on Oct. 12, the first day of early voting in Phoenix. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — For years, the chair of Arizona’s Republican Party has led attacks on this swing state’s early voting system, warning without evidence that mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes are insecure and unreliable.

Kelli Ward urged her followers to instead “wait in line & vote in person.”

Then, last Tuesday, she posted a photo of herself smiling in front of a steel ballot drop box. In her hand appeared to be an envelope, slid halfway inside.

“Hubby & I voted early in person today,” her Twitter post said.

The new messaging from the party leader came amid anxieties among Arizona Republicans that their assaults on early voting could ultimately suppress GOP turnout in a cycle that will help decide control of the U.S. Senate, the governor’s office and dozens of other contests. In a swing state where Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election by 10,457 votes, any shift in voter participation — a slight increase for one party or decrease for another — could decide a tight race.

In Arizona, 1.4 million votes had been cast as of Thursday according to tracking by Arizona Democratic consultant Sam Almy. That is slightly less than the 1.5 million that had been cast at the same point in 2018. In a state that has used early voting for decades, the method remains popular. In 2018, 80 percent of ballots arrived before Election Day.

In Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and more than half of the state’s voters, Republicans were well behind their pace of early ballot returns from four years ago, according to an analysis of voter data by The Washington Post. As of Thursday, 330,000 ballots had been received from Republicans, compared with 391,000 at an equivalent point in 2018. The return rate for the GOP had dropped from 63 percent of ballots requested to just 49 percent.

Among Democrats, meanwhile, the rate of requested ballots that were returned had also fallen compared to 2018, from 56 percent to 51 percent. But the absolute number received in the fast growing and diversifying county was up, from 298,000 to 330,000.

The early ballot returns in Maricopa County mirror trends elsewhere. In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of mail-in votes had been cast by Democrats, as of Friday, according to state data. In North Carolina and Georgia, Democrats and probable Democrats were nearly twice as likely to vote by mail, compared with Republicans who are more likely to cast their ballot in person, according to a Post analysis.

Most states across the nation show overall robust early returns. As of Saturday, more than 39 million early votes had been cast nationally, more than all the early votes cast in 2018.

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s midterm election, Arizona Republican leaders have urged supporters to vote in person or to drop off early ballots in person. Mark Finchem, the GOP nominee for secretary of state, suggested more extreme measures to his supporters at a Tuesday rally: “Hand deliver it to the county until Friday, and if you can’t do that, take it to the polls, tell the polling staff that you want to spoil that ballot and you want a day-of ballot to exercise.”

Republicans in Arizona argue that the Democratic edge in early voting won’t be sufficient to withstand the GOP’s strength in votes cast on Tuesday. Two people familiar with the GOP strategy said Democrats need an eight-point advantage in early voting to be competitive in all statewide races, and that their current lead is less than that.

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In Maricopa County, the lower GOP returns are likely to be motivated by attacks on the process by former president Donald Trump, GOP leaders and the slate of GOP candidates who refuse to acknowledge that President Biden fairly won the 2020 election, said Paul Bentz, a GOP pollster who has studied voting trends for two decades.

Republicans have dominated early voting in Arizona for decades, he noted, but after sustained suspicions, suddenly GOP early-ballot performance decreased.

“He suppressed his own vote and transformed a portion of his own electorate from early votes that were bankable and that were reliable, to Election Day voters,” Bentz said of Trump.

Adrian Fontes, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state and a former Maricopa County recorder, said Democrats have built a formidable advantage over Republicans in early voting in part owing to Republicans “telling their people to show up on Election Day.”

But the size of the Democratic advantage has alarmed Republicans, he argued, causing them to muddle their message in the final days of voting.

“I think enough of them started saying ‘Wait a minute, we’re not performing well, and this is scary now,’ and so they had to change their message,” Fontes said. “Which shows a lack of sophistication and a lack of leadership at the state party.”

How a pro-Trump youth group remade the Arizona GOP, testing democracy

Some Republicans acknowledge there’s risk in focusing so heavily on Election Day.

“The danger is, any time you just say, ‘Okay, well, I’ll turn all my votes out on just one day,’ is if something happens that day,” like unexpected sickness or weather problems, said Republican consultant Constantin Querard.

Maricopa County election officials say they have prepared for higher than usual turnout on Election Day by increasing staffing and stocking up on supplies, such as paper to print ballots on demand. They expect 250,000 to 350,000 people to vote in person on Tuesday out of a total projection of 1.4 million to 1.9 million voters. At a news conference last week, county officials warned there could be lines at polling places.

“If we have lines, it’s not a sign that Maricopa County has failed in running its elections,” said Bill Gates, the Republican chair of the board of supervisors. “I’m anticipating that could be a possible narrative.”

Kathleen Hill, 68, an independent voter from Phoenix, said she generally trusts the system and is bewildered by the persistent criticism of it.

Yet, instead of mailing back her ballot, she caught a bus one recent afternoon and briskly walked into the county recorder’s office in downtown Phoenix. She walked up to a blue plastic box that sat inside the quiet office, studied it for a moment and then deposited her ballot.

“I’m concerned that somehow it’s going to be lost somewhere and not counted,” she said of not wanting to send her ballot through the U.S. Postal Service. “To me, when I put it in the box it was like, ‘Okay, they’ve got it.’ ”

Leaders of Arizona’s 15 counties have grappled with mistrust in the electoral system. They have endeavored to convince voters of all stripes of the system’s accuracy.

In a county rife with conspiracy, a GOP clerk fights to win voters’ trust

In Mohave County, where Trump won 75 percent of the vote in 2020, the election director also attended an August meeting with county leaders to answer their questions, including baseless concerns that some colors of pen ink aren’t counted by voting machines.

Officials spent about $10,000 for voice-over and editing work for two videos to raise awareness about how elections are run.

“It was a positive step, but an extraordinary step, indeed,” said Sam Elters, the county manager. “We had not done any videos specifically designed for an upcoming election before.”

Patrick Marley in Madison, Wis., Isaac Stanley-Becker in Phoenix and Amy Gardner in Washington contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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