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Republicans pushing to embrace mail-in voting encounter widespread resistance

When Donald Trump held a rally last year in Erie County, an important area in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, the top Republican official there went one by one to the 11,000 people waiting in line to ask one question: Would you like to vote by mail?

It did not go well.

“I tried to give them a mail-in ballot application, and could only get out about 300,” Tom Eddy, head of the county’s Republican Party, said. “Every one of them said either, ‘No, that’s not the right way to vote,’ or ‘Trump does not agree with it.’”

What happened in Erie County is emblematic of the ongoing feud within the GOP over one of the most fundamental elements of elections: how to vote. And it reflects a strain at a critical time for the party, when national and battleground polling has shown the 2024 presidential election could be won at the margins.

National Republicans are attempting a shift to embrace mail-in and early voting to match what’s been a Democratic advantage in recent years.

But interviews with nearly 20 Republican officials and voters across the country say there is lingering, and sometimes fierce, resistance to the idea — from Trump on down. The schism signals potential peril for the party in the fall if it once again fails to match Democrats’ on-the-ground ballot organization.

It starts at the top. As the leader of the Republican Party, Trump has used his position to blast, without evidence, mail-in voting as a Trojan horse for widespread voter fraud. In the process, the former president has eroded trust in a method that was once widely embraced by many people in his party, putting Republicans at a disadvantage against Democrats.

“Mail-in voting is totally corrupt,” Trump said bluntly during a February rally in Michigan. In his stump speeches, written remarks often include a plug for mail-in voting, but Trump struggles to recite the lines without casting doubt on early-voting options.

Trump won Erie County, for instance, by 1,500 votes in 2016, but lost it by 1,200 votes in 2020. Eddy, who said he personally prefers voting in person, added that he believes Trump lost there four years ago because of Republicans’ reluctance to use mail ballots.

“I think Trump can win Erie County, but I have to get Republicans to accept the mail-in ballot,” he said.

Republican officials at the national and local levels widely say they prefer voting in person, but many concede times have changed, and they need to build up a vote-by-mail operation to mitigate huge investments Democrats have made in recent years.

“Trump … and all of our top-of-the-ticket leaders need to make it clear: If you’re an infrequent voter, use whatever means necessary,” said Brandon Maly, chair of the Dane County GOP in Wisconsin.

But that is easier said than done. There remains a large swath of passionate Trump voters — including some party officials — who are taking their cues from the former president.

“I always vote in person. … Don’t trust mail-in voting,” said Linda Ragsdale, a 66-year-old two-time Trump voter from Ohio. “Things conveniently get lost. Especially when concerned with Trump votes.”

In the critical Washoe County in Nevada, a swing county that could help make or break the battleground state for Republicans, the county chair wants nothing to do with mail-in voting.

“Absolutely not. It’s horrific,” Washoe County GOP Chair Bruce Parks said. “It’s the worst system in the entire universe.”

Leo Blundo, GOP chair in Nevada’s Nye County, holds similar reservations, saying that, instead of advocating for mail-in voting in the fall, he and others with the party plan to go door-to-door to personally collect ballots from voters, put them in a secure box and drop them off at the local clerk’s office.

Blundo made clear he didn’t trust the mail. He asked, sarcastically, whether a voter would take a $100 bill and put it in the mailbox.

“Yeah, you trust the mail? Ship it,” he said. “Let’s see if it gets there.”

Trump likewise has spent years hammering mail-in-ballots at a time when the process has become increasingly popular. Mail ballots peaked during the pandemic-plagued 2020 election cycle at 43 million, according to the MIT Election Data Science Lab. That number dropped to 31 million during the 2022 midterms, a falloff that was expected because there were no pandemic-era voting restrictions and midterm elections generally have lower turnout than presidential elections. It was still up substantially from the 23 million mail ballots cast during the 2018 midterms.

Despite the spiking popularity, Trump has maintained that the institution of mail voting is inherently riddled with fraud and abuse.

In 2020, Trump filed several lawsuits in key states trying to stop vote-counting or force recounts after his campaign said post-Election Day increases in vote totals for President Joe Biden — much of which came from mail ballots, which were counted after the in-person votes — were evidence of fraud.

None of the lawsuits were successful, and FBI officials at the time said there was “no evidence” to back up Trump’s claims that mail ballots increase the chances of fraud.

The position has put Trump’s hand-picked leadership team at the Republican National Committee in a bind. Many party leaders at both the national and state levels continue to believe that voting by mail is a helpful political tool, but they must urge their voters to at least consider the practice without attracting the wrath of the man who controls the party.

“Programs at the RNC focusing on early voting, ballot harvesting where legal, absentee ballot and mail in programs will continue to be enhanced,” Trump-backed RNC Chair Michael Whatley wrote to his members in a memo last week. “Our Bank Your Vote program will continue educating and empowering voters to feel confident in early voting and voting by mail.”

In a follow-up memo last week, Whatley again emphasized the need to vote by mail.

“Encouraging our voters to utilize early voting and vote-by-mail are top priorities as we reorganize our political operation at the RNC,” wrote Whatley, who estimated that more than half of all 2024 voters will vote before Election Day.

National Republicans think that Trump’s concerns about mail-in voting are valid, but they said that does not mean the party should not continue to encourage people to vote in many different ways.

“Both things can and do co-exist,” Trump spokesperson Danielle Alvarez said when asked about Trump’s aversion to mail voting and the party’s desire to continue it. “Different states have different rules because elections are state by state. There are states with bad laws on the books, and we want to be aggressive in ensuring that elections are safe and secure.”

“At the same time, we have to play by the rules we are given, and we will bank votes for President Trump,” she added, using a term that refers to campaigns collecting, or “banking,” votes ahead of Election Day.

Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law whom he recently installed as RNC co-chair, told NBC News that Trump is now “very much embracing early voting” — even though just last month, he said that “you automatically have fraud” with voting by mail.

Republican candidates and officials across the country hope she is right as the party tries not only to retake the White House, but win key congressional races to recapture the Senate and keep the House.

“The election laws did change, and Republicans ought to take every opportunity that the law allows, which includes harvesting, voting by mail, voting early,” Sam Brown, the front-runner to become the Republican nominee for Senate in Nevada, said. “And I’ve seen there’s been a shift and sort of a recognition that we ought to embrace the full spectrum of methods and opportunities and time for us to vote.”

His state party learned the hard way in the 2022 midterms, when Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won the closely watched race in a key contest that helped Democrats win the Senate. She won by fewer than 8,000 votes after Democrats, with the help of the powerful Culinary Workers Union, mounted a massive ground game that included a robust vote-by-mail effort.

Republicans, meanwhile, complained repeatedly about the problems of voter fraud in the state.

Complicating matters is the fact Republicans will be at a significant financial disadvantage up-and-down the ballot in 2024. Biden and a constellation of Democratic committees announced they raised $53 million in February and have $155 million cash on hand. Trump and the RNC had $42 million in the bank headed into March.

State-level political parties are heavily reliant on national parties to fund much of their basic operations during a presidential election, including things like building programs designed to increase the number of people who sign up for mail ballots, then “chase” those ballots to make sure people who request them actually cast them.

mail ballots (Sait Serkan Gurbuz / AP file)

A Republican operative in Georgia said the RNC’s money problems are “real” and would affect “everyone, not just Trump.”

“I don’t think state parties in places like Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan are going to be able to raise money to fund these programs in a real way,” the operative said.

The person added that because Democrats will push heavily for both early voting and voting by mail, the problem for Republicans will be exacerbated, as it will be more expensive and inefficient to continue to target voters up until Election Day.

“Every Republican campaign in the country is going to be outspent by Democrats this year, we know that,” the Georgia operative said. “And if you can’t bank your vote [through mail voting], you spend so much money in the final weeks of the campaign trying to reach people.”

Some longtime Republican operatives in other presidential battleground states said that mail ballot programs will continue, but likely in a quieter way.

“They will do the usual chase,” said Andrew Hitt, the Wisconsin GOP’s former executive director, referring to the practice of making sure voters send in the ballots they receive in the mail. “I did it in 2020 and I can’t imagine that changing.”

“It will be a behind-the-scenes effort that no one sees,” he added. “They won’t talk about it, but they will be pressing hard.”

In Arizona, another presidential battleground state, some Republicans will also continue to push for voting by mail even though key party leaders, including Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward and Senate candidate Kari Lake, have sided with Trump in advocating for in-person Election Day voting.

Lake, a staunch Trump ally, does not overtly encourage people to avoid voting by mail, but she remains skeptical of the process.

“I’d like to get back to Election Day, not election month, where we count the votes on Election Day, and we know the results at night,” she said. “But we’re not in that world right now. So we got to vote the way we have it. And that is vote early.”

Shiree Verdone, a longtime Republican operative in Arizona who co-chaired both of Trump’s state campaigns, is much more blunt about her support of voting by mail.

“Too many things can happen on Election Day. The kids can get sick. It can rain, or whatever,” she said. “The safest way for Republicans to vote is by mail.”

“I think it’s insane to try to stop that,” she said. “It puts us at a total disadvantage.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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