Will Trump's opposition to voting by mail end up costing him the election?

Varad Mehta floated the possibility this morning after reading this Philly Inquirer story annnnnd I can’t blame him. Trump really might be talking himself into an epic backfire here.

It reminds me a bit of his position on masks. He’ll wear the mask personally in limited circumstances, just as he’s also personally willing to vote by mail. But he’s lukewarm about widespread mask-wearing, suggesting at times that it’s “politically correct” and retweeting an article a few days ago claiming that it’s a form of social control. And he’s overbearingly hostile to widespread voting by mail, insisting without evidence that it’ll lead to rampant fraud at the polls.

There’s one big difference between his position on masks and his position on mail-in ballots, though. When he discourages mask-wearing among his fans, he risks harming others. When he discourages voting by mail among his fans, he risks harming himself. And I’m not sure he realizes yet to what extent he’s doing so. Maybe the Inquirer story will shake him out of his stupor.

As of Thursday morning, about 1.3 million registered Democrats had requested and been approved for mail ballots for the June 2 primary election, compared with about 524,000 Republicans. Republicans made just 29% of the requests, even though they represent 38% of registered voters in the state and 45% of those registered with either major party.

“I must tell you that locally, in my county, we’re not advocating and we’re not pushing the mail-in voting,” said Lee Snover, chairwoman of the Northampton County GOP. “We’re concerned about fraud. We’re not happy with the process. Trump has sent the message out there that he’s concerned about it as well…

“Our county kind of is a Trump county. We’re kind of listening to Trump on this,” Snover said. “He’s spoken about it. He’s tweeted about it. He doesn’t want us to do it.”

Snover said “more than one person” has told her that “Trump doesn’t want us mailing in, [so] I’m not mailing it in.”

In another county in northeastern Pennsylvania, Republicans represent 30 percent of the electorate but only 20 percent of the mail-in ballot applications so far. Bear in mind, the state GOP has been encouraging Republicans in Pennsylvania to consider voting by mail, even setting up a webpage to walk them through the process. Quite rationally, they don’t want to handicap themselves relative to Democrats. But they’re being drowned out by you-know-who.

What kind of numbers are we talking about potentially in November? According to the Inquirer, “The number of registered voters in Philadelphia alone who have requested mail ballots exceeds the statewide total in the 2016 primary.” Pennsylvanians, at least in the Democratic areas, seem to be getting comfortable with mail-in voting. Other states are getting comfortable with it too. Check the map at the top here and you’ll see that every major battleground state allows voters to request an “absentee” ballot without requiring any proof that they really will be absent from the state on Election Day. That includes Trump’s new home state of Florida, where he voted “absentee” this year and Kayleigh McEnany has voted “absentee” 11 times in 10 years. “Absentee” is a misnomer under those conditions; if the state isn’t demanding evidence that you’ll actually be absent before it grants you a ballot, it’s just mail-in voting by another name.

Some states, including several red ones, have made it even easier to vote “absentee” this year amid the coronavirus pandemic by mailing the ballot application directly to voters instead of waiting for them to request one. Trump can rant all he wants about fraud and do his best to try to somehow distinguish “absentee” ballots, which he views as legitimate, from mail-in ballots, which are supposedly filthy with fraud, but at the end of the day these votes will be counted. If Republican voters are boycotting voting by mail, they’re putting the president and the party at a disadvantage.

Granted, it doesn’t mean they won’t vote at all. Most will do it the old-fashioned way by lining up on Election Day. But it’s folly to think that every last person who might have checked the box for Trump if a ballot were delivered to them at home will go to the trouble of visiting a polling place. The weather on November 3 may be terrible. A COVID-19 outbreak might be raging locally. Some casual voters may dislike Trump and Biden but mildly prefer the president. They’re not going to take time out of their day to wait in line to express that preference, but hand them a ballot while they’re sitting on their couch and sure, they’ll drop it in the mail. Almost by definition, a party that utilizes only one form of voting will struggle to keep pace with a party that utilizes two. And any politician (except one, I guess) would welcome the idea of banking votes early rather than leaving turnout to the vagaries of Election Day.

If Trump’s going to rave about the supposed fraud risk from mail-in voting, at the very least he should call on Republicans to take advantage of voting by mail too so that Democrats “can’t get away with it” or whatever. He’s maneuvered himself for the moment into calling for unilateral disarmament by his own fans.

If anything, Republicans have special reason to encourage voting by mail. Voters who take it upon themselves to request mail-in ballots tend to be wealthier and better educated, the Times noted a few weeks ago. In the past those voters skewed Republican; lately, in the age of Trump, they’ve skewed Democratic, helping the Dems to take back the House in 2018. If those voters want to vote “absentee” this fall, they’ll take the initiative and do it. It’s the downscale voters who need help and persuasion to avail themselves of mail ballots. And a lot of those downscale voters are white working-class Trump fans, exactly the people he needs in the Rust Belt and beyond to cut Biden’s margins. Maybe they’ll show up for him on Election Day or maybe some of them will have trouble getting off work. Maybe some have soured on him a little, enough that they won’t wait on a line to vote for him but not so much that they wouldn’t cast a ballot for him from the comfort of their sofa if they had one in hand. He’s potentially leaving those votes on the table by warning Republicans that mail-in votes are tools of the devil.

One thing he has going for him, though, is that black voters are suspicious of voting by mail as well and of course black voters lean heavily Democratic. Maybe there’s a wealth/class effect there too, but Reuters reasons that black Americans have special reason to distrust that the government will count their votes fairly. “I feel if I don’t put the ballot in the machine myself, who knows what happens to it?” said one. As of 10 days ago in Georgia, just 17 percent of black voters had requested absentee ballots versus 25 percent of whites, and in 2018 nationwide just 11 percent of black voters requested one. *If* Trump’s ranting about mail-in ballots and fraud has any influence with African-Americans, it might end up helping him after all by discouraging some of them from voting. But Democrats at least will be working on convincing the vote-by-mail skeptics in their base to reconsider. With Republicans it’s the opposite: The most influential person in the party is encouraging them *not* to vote — at least not that way. Republicans in Congress must be tearing their hair out.