Can Republicans Embrace Voting by Mail? Pennsylvania Offers a Test.

Can Republicans Embrace Voting by Mail? Pennsylvania Offers a Test.

When voters turned out in February to fill a vacant seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the stakes were nothing less than control of the chamber, which Democrats held by a single seat.

Candace Cabanas, the 45-year-old Republican candidate who was running as a working-class mom, faced an uphill battle, though not a hopeless one in a competitive district that has long favored Democrats.

But as Election Day dawned, a nor’easter dumped several inches of snow, stranding would-be voters at home. Bad luck dogged others: One woman backing Ms. Cabanas skipped the polls after she fell ill and was rushed to the hospital.

Ms. Cabanas’s Democratic opponent faced similar hurdles but had one advantage: More than 3,300 of his voters had mailed in their ballots early. Ms. Cabanas could count only 532.

Guess who won?

February’s lesson is not lost on Republican leaders in Pennsylvania, who have pledged to spend millions of dollars this year to promote voting by mail despite claiming for years — without evidence — that mailed votes are riddled with fraud. The national party is also pressing a pro-mail publicity campaign called “Bank Your Vote,” apparently after concluding that staking its candidates’ fates on a hefty Election Day turnout was not an optimal strategy.

They may have their work cut out for them. “Persuading Republican voters to use them is really difficult. They don’t trust the system,” Ms. Cabanas said of mail ballots.

Take George E. Bierman, an investment executive and registered Republican in Williamsport, a deeply red city about 170 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Mr. Bierman said he might consider casting a mail ballot “if I thought it would do any good.” But did he believe others would?

“Honestly, no, I don’t,” he said. “With everything that has transpired, I don’t trust the government in any way, shape or form.”

For Republicans, such wariness is a self-inflicted wound, particularly in key swing states like Pennsylvania.

Barely a year before the 2020 election, the Pennsylvania legislature, then under Republican control, overwhelmingly approved a law allowing no-excuse voting by mail. But on the campaign trail the next year, President Donald J. Trump denounced mail voting at every turn, calling it “an effort to rig the presidential election.” The conservative group Project Veritas later released a widely publicized video falsely claiming that postal officials in Erie, Pa., had tampered with mail ballots.

After Mr. Trump’s defeat, Republican lawmakers turned against mail ballots, trying to repeal the law they had enacted, and then seeking to overturn it in court. Both attempts failed, but voters got the message: In a Muhlenberg College poll of about 500 Pennsylvanians that was conducted in December 2021, seven in 10 Republican respondents said they were “very” or “somewhat” confident there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election, and almost a third said mail ballots were the greatest threat to the 2022 midterms.

In those midterms, roughly 75 percent of the state’s one million requests for mail ballots came from voters registered as Democrats — even though registered Democrats make up only about 45 percent of all voters.

Now Pennsylvania Republicans want to reverse course again. The state’s party leaders and prominent supporters pledged last year to raise $8 million to drum up early and mailed votes in 2024. A pro-Republican group called the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania has claimed that it will raise another $2 million.

“Sometimes you get a late start, but better late than never,” said Jim Worthington, a Trump supporter and the owner of an athletic club in the Bucks County borough of Newtown, who is part of the $8 million effort. “We have nowhere to go but up.”

One goal, of course, is to boost Republican turnout, perhaps by giving less dedicated G.O.P. supporters a voting option more convenient than driving to the polls in the middle of a workweek.

But political strategists say the real value of mail ballots to the parties is their certainty — a guarantee that those voters will not stay home on Election Day because of a sick child, snowstorm or flat tire, freeing campaigns to pursue voters who haven’t made a choice.

That could make a difference in a closely divided state like Pennsylvania. Still, the upside for the G.O.P. could be limited. Pennsylvania Republicans already vote more faithfully than do Democrats. Even with near-record participation across the board, G.O.P. voter turnout in each of the last two elections was seven percentage points greater than Democratic turnout.

Atop that, Republican strategists still must overcome a drumbeat of attacks on the integrity of mailed ballots from the political right — including by Republican leaders themselves.

Although Mr. Trump has issued a recorded call for voters to cast mail ballots as part of the national party’s “Bank Your Vote” effort, he has criticized mail voting as “dishonest” and “totally corrupt” this year, and has said that states that allow it will “automatically have fraud.”

In fact, evidence of organized fraud in mail-in voting is vanishingly rare. But Mr. Trump’s claims have landed as lawyers for both the national and state Republican parties continue to file lawsuits aiming to make mail balloting harder, not easier.

In Philadelphia, for example, the Republican National Committee is asking a federal appeals court to throw out mail-in ballots that voters inadvertently mark with the wrong date, thousands of which are cast in every major election. In Harrisburg, the state capital, two Republican state legislators are suing to prohibit the use of drop boxes for mail ballots anywhere in the state.

Lisa Arp, a South Williamsport elementary-school teacher, said many smaller-town conservatives had little trust in a system they saw as skewed to favor liberal big cities. Their mistrust of mail balloting is part of that worldview.

“You want it to be as fair as possible,” she said of the voting process. “You want them to check your ID. You want them to check your name. You can’t do that through a mail ballot.”

In Bucks County, Chris Sofield, who said he had missed voting in only one election since 1979, said that to win, “we as Republicans know we have to use the system, no matter how corrupt it is.”

That will be the day, said Mike Mikus, whose firm, Chartiers Group, is one of the state’s top Democratic political strategy shops. He said that trying to persuade Republican voters to use mail ballots would prove “one of the biggest wastes of money in campaign history.”

“Donald Trump has done so much damage to the party by demonizing the use of mail ballots that there is no way, especially in this upcoming election, that Republican voters are going to decide to vote by mail en masse,” he said.

Republican officials nevertheless say they are upbeat. In Bucks County, 16,000 of the 40,000 most recent applications for mail ballots came from registered Republicans, said Patricia Poprik, the chairwoman of the Bucks County Republican Committee and one of the 20 Pennsylvania Republican electors who cast what they called a “provisional vote” for Mr. Trump after his 2020 loss to Mr. Biden.

(Unlike the document signed by so-called fake electors favoring Mr. Trump in most other states, the one signed by the Pennsylvania electors said that it was contingent on a court overturning the results in the state, There was no such ruling.)

The 16,000 Republican applications in the county are a decided change from the 3-to-1 advantage that Democrats have enjoyed in the past.

“It will take our elections more time to become more comfortable with it,” Ms. Poprik said of mail-in voting. “The problem we have is that Republican voters don’t trust that system.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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