vote by mail ballot
Credit: Tysasi/Flickr

To get an idea of how important vote-by-mail is for Republicans, let’s look at the numbers from Florida in 2016. The Sunshine State offers two options for voting early. They have designated polling stations where you can go and cast a vote in person, and you can also request a ballot in the mail which you can fill out and send in at your leisure. Democrats have historically preferred the former option, while Republicans have preferred the latter. The Democrats made a major effort to close the vote-by-mail advantage in 2016 and had some success, but the overall trend remained the same.

According to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Elections, 1,080,808 Republicans cast their votes by mail compared to 1,053,254 Democrats– a net advantage of 27,554. That was important because 1,139,103 Democrats utilized the early voting stations while only 1,026,600 Republicans did so, giving Hillary Clinton a 112,503 vote edge. This meant that Clinton had about an 85,000 vote advantage when Election Day started, but it would have been over 100,000 if not for vote-by-mail. Trump ultimately won Florida by about 113,000 votes, meaning that he got about 200,000 more in-person votes on Election Day.

As you can see, Trump’s victory wasn’t dependent on his vote-by-mail advantage, but it definitely gave him a much needed cushion. Without James Comey announcing that Clinton was under renewed investigation in last days of the campaign, she may have been able to carry a 100,000 vote early vote advantage to victory.

I’m sure Joe Biden would like to eliminate the Republicans historic vote-by-mail advantage in Florida completely, but that would be a historic reversal and a major disappointment for Donald Trump’s campaign. It would be particularly painful if it came about because of the president’s own rhetoric.

Consider what happened in Michigan on Friday.

People burned letters informing them that they can vote by absentee ballot in future elections during a protest near Grand Rapids.

The applications were burned Friday during an event called Operation Incinerator outside the DeltaPlex Arena in Walker. Many people had flags, shirts and signs showing support for President Donald Trump and Republicans.

These protestors were offended that Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson mailed absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. In part, they were misled by Trump who falsely claimed that actual ballots were mailed rather than applications for ballots, but the greater point is that it is widely believed on the right that making voting easier will benefit the Democrats. Many believe it will be even more harmful than that because it will make it easy for the Democrats to commit voter fraud. This belief, too, has been stoked by Trump.

So, rather than take advantage of vote-by-mail, Republicans are burning the applications. And it’s not just happening in Michigan. In the lead-up to the June 2 primary in Pennsylvania, the Republicans learned the hard way that Trump’s rhetoric was making it hard to turn out their vote:

With Pennsylvania’s June 2 presidential primary fast approaching, local Republican leader Mark Hrutkay took to Facebook to remind supporters they have the option to vote by mail as coronavirus sweeps the state.

“I had one woman, using a lot of four-letter words, tell me ‘didn’t you know Trump hates mail-in balloting,’” said Hrutkay, the Republican chairman of Washington County, a Trump-friendly region just outside Pittsburgh.

That was in the western part of the state, but things were much the same in the east.

The Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature had been trying to expand vote-by-mail even before the coronavirus upended the 2020 election, raising fears about the safety of in-person voting, according to the Inquirer this week.

Local Republican Party officials there told the outlet that GOP voters in the state, however, were listening to Trump’s claims of fraud.

“Our county kind of is a Trump county. We’re kind of listening to Trump on this,” Lee Snover, chairwoman of the Northampton County GOP, told the Inquirer. “He’s spoken about it. He’s tweeted about it. He doesn’t want us to do it.”

When the first returns came in after the June 2nd voting, I was alarmed that many more Republicans had voted than Democrats despite the state’s closed primary system and a big Democratic registration advantage. Those results did not hold up once all the vote-by-mail votes were counted, and a big reason is that by the Thursday before the election, 1.3 million Democrats had requested mail ballots compared to only 524,000 Republicans. In the end, about 400,000 more votes were cast by Democrats than Republicans.

This didn’t have any immediate negative effect on the GOP because these were not head-to-head contests, but the reluctance to use mail ballots could have a huge impact in November, especially if the Covid-19 outbreak is still raging and making people leery of showing up to the polls in person.

These three states, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, are vital to Trump’s prospects of winning reelection, and he is sabotaging himself in each of them. Floridians may be less influenced because so many there are used to voting by mail, but this is still like a mental contagion that is ripping through conservative circles. Trump shouldn’t think his numbers won’t suffer in Florida to some degree, as well as in every state where mail is an option.

It seems to be an article of faith on the right that voter suppression is a key to victory, but it seems to backfire more often than it works. We just saw this in Georgia, where some urbanites who were first in line to vote when the polls opened were still waiting to cast their ballot at 12:30 in the afternoon. You’d think that making Atlantans wait several hours to vote would discourage them and that many would give up and go home or to work.

But a funny thing happened:

Despite massive problems at the voting booth, Democratic turnout in Georgia’s primaries skyrocketed — with three times as many votes cast in the Senate primary as in 2016.

With 91 percent of the vote in as of Friday, nearly 960,000 voters had cast ballots in the Democratic Senate primary race won by Jon Ossoff, compared to 310,000 who voted in the Senate primary in 2016.

It appears that for every vote the Republicans suppressed, they somehow created several more votes out of pure defiance. This doesn’t make their tactics any less disgraceful and illegal, but it calls into serious question whether they actually work.

I can’t really envision any scenario where Trump’s campaign against vote-by-mail won’t ultimately make it harder for him to win, and so if he wants to keep it up, I won’t discourage him.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at