New data shows the folly of Trump’s crusade against early voting

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janvier 2, 2023

If there was any doubt Donald Trump’s vilification of early voting is only hurting the GOP, new receipts from the midterm elections show it.

Election data from a trio of states that dramatically expanded the ability to cast ballots before Election Day, either early or by mail, demonstrate that the voting methods that were decidedly uncontroversial before Trump do not clearly help either party.

Lawmakers of both parties made it easier to vote by expanding availability of mail and early voting in a politically mixed group of states: Vermont, Kentucky and Nevada.

The states had divergent results but shared a few key things in common. Making it easier to vote early or by mail did not lead to voter fraud, nor did it seem to advantage Republicans or Democrats. In Kentucky, Republicans held on to five of the state’s six congressional districts and a Senate seat. Both Vermont and Nevada saw split-ticket voters decide statewide races, by a gaping margin in Vermont and a narrow one in Nevada.

It reflects a broad lesson for other states that might consider expanding voter access or encouraging voting before Election Day: While voting methods have become deeply polarized by party, expanding access to early and mail voting does not appear to benefit one party over the other. Republicans do not do themselves any favors when they follow in Trump’s footsteps and vilify early voting: It puts more onus on their voters to cast ballots on a single day.

But there is little evidence that expanding voter access tilts elections toward Democrats, either.

“We’ve shown that it is bipartisan,” said Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, of his state’s new early voting window. “Both sides are comfortable using it.”

Vermont, a heavily Democratic state at the federal level that still occasionally votes for Republicans locally, set turnout records for the modern era in November after switching permanently to universal mail-in ballots. But Nevada, which adopted automatic voter registration and also mailed ballots to all voters in 2022 after a pandemic trial run in 2020, saw only a slight increase in ballots cast despite hotly contested statewide races.

In Kentucky, a rare red state that expanded access to early voting, most voters still voted on Election Day and turnout in the November midterm election was lower than 2018, though a lack of competitive races may have contributed to that.

Many states expanded mail and early voting options on short notice in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They faced prompt backlash from Trump, who falsely claimed that mail ballots were linked to widespread voter fraud. His rhetoric helped drive an unprecedented partisan split among voting methods, with Democratic voters becoming far more likely to use mail and early voting options while Republican voters mostly cast ballots on Election Day.

That divide fueled further election-related conspiracy theories because of the order in which votes were counted in key states such as Pennsylvania.

A handful of Republican-controlled states responded in 2021 by rolling back pandemic-era voting reforms or further restricting access to alternative voting methods. GOP-controlled Texas enacted legislation banning overnight and drive-by voting options that had been used in populous Harris County, a Democratic stronghold.

But elsewhere, the successful use of mail and early voting during the pandemic provided a model for expanding voting access. In Vermont, legislation to send every active registered voter a ballot passed with bipartisan support in 2021 and was signed by Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican.

Scott, a moderate, easily won reelection in November with more than 70 percent of the vote, while Democrats won other statewide races in Vermont. The state also saw its highest turnout ever for a non-presidential election, with 57 percent of adults casting ballots — something Deputy Secretary of State Chris Wilson attributed in part to the ease of voting by mail.

“There were a number of Republicans who were worried about the security aspect of vote-by-mail and potential voter fraud that came forward afterward and said, ‘You know what, this helped a lot of people turn out who normally would not vote,’” Wilson said.

In Nevada, the Democratic-led legislature moved to make universal mail voting permanent in 2021 after it was used during the pandemic. The expansion came as part of a litany of electoral reforms. Nevada voters previously enacted automatic voter registration for individuals obtaining or updating their drivers’ licenses via a 2018 referendum, and they supported a referendum in November to use ranked-choice voting in future elections, though it will have to pass again in 2024 to go into effect.

The number of voters on the rolls has ballooned over the past two years, likely in part due to the easier registration. But despite those growing numbers and the fact that every registered Nevada voter was sent a ballot ahead of the November election, the total number of ballots cast in Nevada this election ticked up only slightly compared with 2018. The share of registered voters who cast a ballot was actually lower.

Turnout is not just about voting laws. Sondra Cosgrove, a Nevada voting-rights advocate and history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, expressed concern that the state had not allocated enough resources to voter education. A small but not insignificant share of mail ballots were thrown out, she said, because voters had made errors and not cured them.

For the state’s primary earlier in the year, about 4,000 mail ballots were not counted for that reason.

Statistics are not yet available for the general election. But both parties targeted their voters whose ballots needed curing after Election Day as key races remained close — a less than ideal outcome, Cosgrove noted, saying curing ballots shouldn’t be a “partisan exercise.”

Nevada did see some polarization by voting type. Democrats were more likely to vote by mail while Republicans tended to cast their ballots on Election Day. But both parties still came out with statewide victories. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the GOP nominee for governor, narrowly defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, while Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto held on in one of the country’s closest Senate races.

In Kentucky, lawmakers took a different path. The state’s GOP-led Legislature reached a deal with Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, to permanently establish three days of early voting. Previously, Election Day had been the only day for voting for more than a century.

During the pandemic, the state had expanded absentee voting for the 2020 primary and added several weeks of early voting for the general election, but the three-day period was less costly, noted Adams, the secretary of state. And it still allowed voters to cast ballots on the days when early voting had been most popular.

In 2020, the state also blasted the airwaves and covered billboards with ads encouraging early voting, a strategy aimed at reducing crowds on Election Day that was made possible by an influx of federal pandemic dollars. With those funds long gone and fewer concerns about Covid-19, there was not a similar push in November.

Most Kentucky voters returned to casting their ballots on Election Day, and there was no significant polarization by voting method, with Republicans and Democrats largely using the early voting window at similar rates.

Adams speculated that the use of early voting might slowly increase over the next few election cycles as voters become more accustomed to it.

“I think the biggest factor in turnout is voter motivation,” he said. “That’s peripheral to what election rules are.”

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