Pollak: The Republican Party Needs to Tackle Its Vote-by-Mail Problem
Vote-by-mail is the story of the 2020 election.
Republicans ran the most aggressive get-out-the-vote operation in U.S. history, bringing nearly 72 million voters to the polls. Despite that effort, they were swamped by mail-in-ballots that brought the Democrats nearly 76 million votes.
Mass vote-by-mail was a change Democrats sought precisely because they knew it would give them the advantage. Republicans turned out the voters, and Democrats turned out the envelopes, and envelopes counted.
The result highlights the fact that the two parties have fundamentally different approaches to voting.
Republicans consider voting to be a civic ritual, defined by a particular day and place, requiring some degree of personal commitment from voters.
Democrats consider voting to be away of registering a preference, no matter how subtle, and anything that makes expressing that preference more difficult — including being able to prove that you are who you say you are — is regarded with suspicion.
It should be noted that the Republican idea is closer to the international standard.
In most countries — including poor, Third World countries — voting happens on one day, and requires that voters be physically present in polling places, with photo ID. Absentee voting is restricted and must happen under similar conditions.
That is not “racist”; it is just realism. The potential for fraud is simply too great to allow people to vote by mail, or to trust their word when they say they are on the voter rolls.
The irony is that Republicans tend to believe the U.S. should follow its own standards, not those of some international body. But the U.S. has actually incorporated some global standards by ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 25 says elections must be held by “secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the voters.” Vote-by-mail violates this provision, because the name of the voter must at some point accompany the ballot itself.
Democrats pushed vote-by-mail in 2020 because they argued that the coronavirus pandemic made voting in person riskier. Though the scientific evidence on that question is mixed, Republicans agreed that there should be more options for voting remotely.
But Republicans objected to mass, “automatic” vote-by-mail. Democrats sued in more than a dozen states to force the issue, and to lower the standards for mail-in-ballots. Judges, fearful of the pandemic, often acquiesced.
Never before have the rules of voting changed in the middle of an election.
It was a change Democrats knew would benefit them. In states that already voted largely or wholly by mail — California and Oregon, for example — Democrats have controlled state politics for years.
This year, the party ran an experiment in a Wisconsin judicial election. It worked, and Democrats exported it elsewhere, aided by massive investments from Silicon Valley that built a large, urban vote-by-mail infrastructure.
Breitbart News had warned for months that vote-by-mail would become a major problem for Republicans, and for public trust in the election itself. Notably, the election lawyer leading many of Democrats’ vote-by-mail cases, Marc Elias, is notorious for overturning elections that Republicans appear to have won, and for his role in the “Russia collusion” hoax. It was Elias and his firm, Perkins Coie, who hired Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele to dig up dirt against Trump in 2016.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr also sounded the alarm. “[W]hen government, state governments start adopting these practices like mail-in ballots that open the floodgates of potential fraud, then people’s confidence in the outcome of the election is going to be undermined,” he predicted in June. He listed vote-by-mail along with creeping censorship as factors that were making the 2020 election worrisome.
He was right: 70% of Republicans say the election was not “free and fair.”
Democrats also tried to make “ballot harvesting” — the mass collection of ballots by party operatives — legal nationwide, hiding it inside coronavirus relief legislation. They legalized the practice in California in 2016 — long before coronavirus — and used it to flip Republican seats in the 2018 midterm elections.
The federal bill never passed, but Democrats carried out what looked like “ballot harvesting” under another name — mass vote-by-mail applications in nursing homes, for example.
Some Republicans were happy to vote by mail. But many were not, and for the same reason that experiments with “ballot harvesting” among Republicans have failed: Republican voters do not part easily with their ballots.
They distrust the U.S. Postal Service, for example, whose employees endorsed Democrat Joe Biden. More Republicans than Democrats also fear retribution if their political views are known, given the growing “cancel culture.” To Republicans, the secret ballot is about personal safety.
President Donald Trump opposed vote-by-mail — predicting, correctly, that it would help Democrats, and create confusion on Election Day. Early efforts by states like Nevada, which never used vote-by-mail before, were a disaster.
Later, realizing that he risked losing votes among frightened seniors, Trump encouraged people to vote by mail and verify their vote in person, if possible.
Some Republicans felt he made a strategic mistake by opposing vote-by-mail. Arguably, Trump had no choice.
When the votes were counted, Trump led by wide margins on Election Day, only to see those leads disappear as mailed-in ballots were counted — a familiar experience for California Republicans. (Kamala Harris won her race for Attorney General that way.)
Experts were pleased that fewer vote-by-mail ballots were rejected than normal — but that was at least partly the result of Democrats’ lawsuits to lower standards. Republicans also claim that Democrats kept observers at an unfair distance.
The question is what to do next.
Republicans are going to court, and it is possible that the result will be overturned in one state, and perhaps more. But vote-by-mail is going to be a problem in the next election.
Republicans have two choices. One is to prohibit vote-by-mail nationwide, except for absentee ballots, perhaps citing U.S. treaty obligations under the ICCPR.
The other option is to accept vote-by-mail and find ways Republicans can use it to their advantage, or at least narrow the gap.
Shawn Steel, the Republican National Committeeman for California, pointed out to Breitbart News on Sunday that while the GOP was taken by surprise the first time “ballot harvesting” was used in his state, the party was far better prepared in 2020.
Instead of asking individual voters for their ballots, for example, Republicans put ballot collection boxes in churches, party offices, and businesses — in institutions their voters trusted. Democrats threatened prosecution, but it was perfectly legal.
The result: Republicans did well in congressional elections in California, taking back two seats in Orange County and — thus far — defending seats elsewhere. Steel’s wife, Michelle Steel, is heading to Congress from the 48th district, as is former state legislator Young Kim. They will be the first two Korean-American women in the U.S. House of Representatives — and they are both Republicans. Moreover, while Democrats remained dominant statewide, they also lost several key ballot initiatives.
Vote-by-mail remains deeply problematic. In effect, it turns elections over to party operatives.
In the long term, the U.S. needs a system that satisfies Republican concerns about the secret ballot and voter fraud, on the one hand, while also satisfying Democratic concerns about access and voting rights, on the other.
In the meantime, the only answer is for Republicans — and their donors — to study California’s example and exploit vote-by-mail in the upcoming Georgia Senate runoff, and beyond.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His newest e-book is The Trumpian Virtues: The Lessons and Legacy of Donald Trump’s Presidency. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.