The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans suddenly get religion on early voting

People wait in line to vote on the first day of early voting for Georgia's two Senate seats at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta on Dec. 14, 2020. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

Donald Trump has spent the past few years waging a crusade against mail voting, but Republicans have suddenly made a point of espousing its virtues. They did so particularly on Tuesday, even as Georgia voters were delivering the GOP its latest big loss in a disappointing election cycle.

The Republicans’ comments on early and mail voting are surely related to their party’s debacle in the Georgia runoff. As for whether the GOP’s losses are actually related to Trump’s attacks on the voting alternatives? That’s less clear.

It’s striking just how often the subject came up on Tuesday:

  • Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel went after those in her party who discouraged mail and early voting, saying that “we have to stop that.”
  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) noted that Republicans once thrived on early and mail voting, but lamented that “we put that away.”
  • Trump’s former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were also on the case during their Fox News appearances.
  • Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were, too. Hannity wondered aloud why Republicans had stopped voting early and by mail “for whatever reason.” But an hour later, fellow host Laura Ingraham had a theory, saying that “everyone said, ‘Don’t vote early, it’s corrupt.’” When Conway argued it wasn’t everyone in the GOP, Ingraham shot back, with a knowing smile, “a lot of people did, at the very top of the Republican Party.”

McDaniel’s staff claimed her comments weren’t really about Trump, but Ingraham’s commentary gives away the game. A lot of people have apparently, if belatedly, come around to the conclusion that attacks on these voting methods by Trump and his allies are corrosive to the GOP. And with Trump’s political stock now damaged — or perhaps because they view the situation as untenable — they’re (kind of) saying that out loud. The fact that so many said it at the same time suggests the party is searching for answers and that perhaps some internal guidance has been distributed.

The RNC is technically right that Trump would occasionally tell people to vote early and even vote by mail. But that was buried beneath extensive attacks on the enterprise, which he falsely blamed for his 2020 election loss. Even in the year before the 2020 election, he attacked mail voting more than 100 times, according to The Washington Post’s Sal Rizzo. And while Trump has reserved most of his attacks for mail voting, his allies have gone after early-voting ballot drop boxes (see: the baseless “2000 Mules” thing), and he has argued that only in-person voting on Election Day is secure.

That line of rhetoric has continued through today, because it’s so central to his false stolen-election claims. Just last week on social media, he declared, “CAN NEVER HAVE FAIR & FREE ELECTIONS WITH MAIL-IN BALLOTS.” And during his campaign launch three weeks ago, he said as president he would push for only “same-day” voting.

If you’re the GOP, you can’t have it both ways. Sure, Trump occasionally urged people to vote using these methods, but he was also telling them repeatedly that they couldn’t be trusted. The message being sent is unmistakably that if people wanted their votes to count, they should cast their ballots in person on Election Day.

As for why this is suddenly such a big deal? The Georgia runoff provides some clues, even if they might not be totally convincing.

Shortly after the polls closed at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, some pessimism set in among Republicans. The reason: The early vote was huge, and the data suggested it was very friendly for Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock. Republicans needed massive runoff-day, in-person turnout, and while that was high as well, it didn’t appear to be at the levels it needed to be. And ultimately it wasn’t.

Also complicating things for the GOP was the weather forecast on runoff day. There was substantial rain in the northern part of the state, and there was some in the Atlanta area — precisely the areas Republican Herschel Walker badly needed to have strong GOP turnout. Voters in north Georgia didn’t turn out much in the runoffs two years ago, and the Atlanta area featured the highest concentrations of people who voted to reelect Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on Election Day four weeks ago but were skeptical of Walker.

There are competing schools of thought on the electoral impact of early and mail voting pushes. Some believe it has little effect, because it just cannibalizes the votes of people who would otherwise turn out on Election Day. But people have real lives, and leaving them just a 12- or 14-hour window to cast their ballots, whatever their best intentions, opens things up to unforeseen circumstances.

As for whether attacks on mail-in and early voting specifically cost Walker, it’s not so clear, even as it’s plausible it made some difference. GOP turnout was down in north Georgia more than elsewhere in the state, but as noted, that was also the case two years ago, and Walker actually expanded his margins in that area. Walker did struggle in the Atlanta area — likely decisively — but much of that was probably because Kemp voters there already didn’t like him. Walker had already far underperformed Kemp on Election Day in those counties, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Nate Cohn, for one, is unconvinced that the GOP’s lack of early voting made a significant difference in 2022. He noted that in many key states GOP turnout was higher, relatively speaking, than it was for Democrats. The 2022 Georgia election was good for every statewide Republican not named Herschel Walker. It’s just that flawed candidates like Walker led enough of those Republican voters to cast ballots for Democrats in some of the most important races.

Walker’s margin of defeat — currently around three points — was such that he probably needed a lot more to overcome it than a stronger early-vote push and for Trump to pipe down on these issues.

But it also epitomized the kind of situation in which you’d want to bank votes: When even your voters aren’t even particularly high on your candidate, they might be more difficult to get to the polls on the final day of the election.

Indeed, while Warnock got about 90 percent of the early votes that he had received four weeks prior, Walker got less than 80 percent. And Warnock expanded his share of early and mail votes from 55 percent four weeks ago to 58.4 percent in the runoff.

The best course for the GOP would seem to be to run better candidates. But Republicans who spoke up on Tuesday apparently believe their president’s and their party’s abandonment of early voting is worth addressing as well. It certainly couldn’t hurt — unless it draws a backlash from Trump.

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