Deidre Henderson watched in surprise as her party waged one attack after another on mail voting in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
For the better part of three years, Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, have repeated claims that mail voting is unsafe and ripe for fraud. GOP leaders took aim at mail voting in state legislatures and the party’s new House majority drafted legislation to rein in the practice.
Only in June did the Republican National Committee launch an official campaign to encourage early voting — including by mail — ahead of the 2024 presidential election. It was a welcome, if overdue, shift in the narrative, according to Henderson, the top election official in Utah, a Republican-led state that has long-since embraced mail voting as a safe and secure way to cut costs and increase voter participation.
“I’m glad the RNC is finally encouraging people to vote early, because I was truly baffled by all of these attacks by the Republican Party to suppress their own votes,” said Henderson, the state’s lieutenant governor.
Mixed messaging from GOP leaders coincided with lower rates of Republican mail voting in the 2020 election and losses in the 2022 midterms. Since then, the party has begun to rethink its stance on mail voting.
The RNC’s “Bank Your Vote” campaign seeks to maximize pre-Election Day turnout by educating and encouraging Republicans to vote early, either in-person or by mail, to beat Democrats in 2024. It represents a need for a culture shift on mail voting, according to some Republican leaders.
Meanwhile in Utah, where Trump won 58 percent of the vote and where more than half of all registered voters are Republican, voting by mail has become the primary method of ballot-casting.
That’s likely because the state enacted an expansive mail voting system well before the issue became politically charged, Henderson said. A 2012 state law allowed individual counties to opt in to a system in which every registered voter would be mailed a ballot each election. By 2019, every county in the state had opted in. Ninety-three percent of voters cast their ballots by mail in the 2022 general election, up from 91 percent in 2020, according to Henderson’s office.
“We had all of our systems in place. So I think that was the key,” Henderson said in an interview this month, days before ballots were mailed to voters in the 2nd District for a Sept. 5 special primary to fill Republican Rep. Chris Stewart’s seat. “They’d done it before and so they were okay continuing to do it. They want to vote by mail.”
The RNC has stopped well short of embracing mail voting as good policy. Instead, Republican leaders have endorsed it as a necessary evil to win elections.
In June, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel appeared on a radio program and warned against letting Democrats “get a head start” on early voting while also advocating for stronger state voting laws.
“We want to see laws like Vote I.D.,” McDaniel told radio host Hugh Hewitt on June 7. “Get rid of ballot harvesting. We don’t want ranked choice voting. We want to fight that in every single state where we can. But when we get to Election Day and the laws are set, we have to play with the rules on the playing ground, and that’s where this initiative is so critical.”
Meanwhile, Trump has continued to sow confusion on the issue, releasing a video in support of the RNC’s plan in late July, then railing against mail voting days later.
“We should have one-day voting, we should have paper ballots, and we should have voter ID and you’d have honest elections,” Trump said on a conservative radio show.
Mail voting surged nationwide in the 2020 presidential election after the pandemic led to lockdowns and states and counties looked for ways to avoid asking poll workers to spend hours in crammed schools and firehouses with crowds of voters. The change largely benefited Democrats, according to FiveThirtyEight. But even before ballots were counted, Trump went on the offensive, tweeting that mail voting would “LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE,” in May 2020.
Post-election analyses found no evidence of widespread fraud. Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former Bush administration appointee, acknowledged there is no “massive” voter fraud in the U.S. But some instances of fraud involving mail or absentee ballots have been documented in local and state races and should be taken seriously, he said.
“I think it’s inevitable that you’re going to have problems with mail voting because they are the only kind of ballots voted outside the supervision of election officials and outside the observation of polls,” said von Spakovsky.
Criticism from Trump and other Republicans dovetailed with legislative efforts to limit the practice after the 2020 election. Even in Utah, Republicans in the state House proposed a bill earlier this year that would’ve ended the practice of automatically sending all registered voters a ballot ahead of elections. The measure did not advance in committee.
House Republicans this Congress have introduced a sweeping election overhaul package premised on the idea that American elections are not secure. While it would not override state laws like Utah’s, it would eliminate Washington, D.C.’s universal mail-voting system and encourage states to enact stronger ID requirements for people voting by mail.
The introduction of the bill, which is doomed to be blocked in the Democrat-controlled Senate, even if it advances out of the House, came weeks after the launch of the RNC campaign.
“What you’re seeing is there’s no consistency on the Republican side with this,” said Amy Dacey, executive director of the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics at American University and former CEO at the Democratic National Committee.
Von Spakovsky, like McDaniel, said he sees no conflict.
“You have to work with the rules that are in place in your state,” said von Spakovsky, who testified earlier this year in favor of the Republican House bill. “That doesn’t mean that you don’t continue to try to convince state legislatures to change bad rules.”
Removing politics from voting
National narratives around the security of mail voting and elections in general have coincided with a drop in voter confidence and a spate of laws that the liberal Brennan Center for Justice alleges are part of a broad Republican strategy to win elections by suppressing Democratic votes.
“Undermining confidence in the legitimacy of the election and the attack on mail voting was a critical piece of that strategy,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, who testified against the House GOP package earlier this year.
According to polling by the Pew Research Center, Republican confidence in elections has cratered since 2018, while confidence increased among Democrats. Just 56 percent of Republicans polled believed elections would be run and administered somewhat or very well ahead of the 2022 midterms, down from 87 percent in 2018.
Voters in Utah, however, have bucked the national trend.
Polling ahead of the 2022 midterms found that 89 percent of registered Utahns were either confident or very confident that their state or local government would conduct fair and accurate elections.
“I’d be lying if I said there was no impact,” said Henderson, of the Republican attacks on mail voting and election integrity. “Of course there is an impact. And on a very small sector of individuals, it is significant. But, at least in Utah, it’s not broad.”
Henderson has not faltered in her belief in the safety and security of mail voting. Republican messaging is merely evidence of politics infiltrating the administration of elections, which should be nonpartisan, she said.
“These attacks are less about the system that’s used and more about the outcome,” Henderson said. “And that’s what worries me. If we only think an election was run well if our candidate wins, and that someone must have cheated if another candidate wins, we’re in trouble as a country.”