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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politicsNorth America

Republicans are learning to love early voting again

David is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post.

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Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake in a press gaggle after voting on election day.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Arizona’s 13-day ballot count finished early on Monday afternoon, with a final batch of votes that broke nearly 2-1 for the Republicans. Despite the late boost, Kari Lake had lost her bid for governor by more than 17,000 votes; Abe Hamedeh, the attorney general candidate who out-ran his fellow “America First” Republicans, was 510 votes down and headed for a recount.

Neither of them had conceded. The election wouldn’t be certified until Nov. 28. Supervisors in Mohave County, which Lake won by 50 points, voted to delay its own certification until the election in Phoenix’s Maricopa County was certified. And Lake was still asking “whistleblowers” to come forward, to prove that Maricopa County’s Election Day problems had thrown the election to Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs.

“Arizonans who choose to make their voice heard on Election Day shouldn't be disenfranchised or punished for choosing to vote in person,” the GOP nominee said in a video posted to social media. “Yet they were.”

Lake lost the election after urging her supporters to turn out on Tuesday, telling Steve Bannon that Republicans could “overwhelm the system” with “shock and awe.” As Arizona conservatives challenge the election, their defeat is becoming a cautionary tale of paranoia on the right about the lost 2020 election committing a candidate to a self-destructive turnout strategy.

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“We were completely outplayed electorally,” former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told members of the Republican Jewish Coalition at their conference in Las Vegas last weekend. “The Democrats did a full court press to vote early. We sat on our hands. Friends: Early and absentee voting are here to stay, we need to play the same game and turn out the maximum number of voters.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis echoed Haley’s criticism. After a round of applause for banning “ballot harvesting,” where campaigns collect absentee ballots from voters and deliver them to the polls, DeSantis urged Republicans to use whatever rules existed in their states.

“I hope some of these other people get with the program, but here's the deal,” DeSantis said. “If they have ballot harvesting, then Republicans need to do this too. You can't just let them do it.”

Neither DeSantis nor Haley, who hinted that she’d challenge Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, mentioned Trump’s name. But Trump fueled the new conservative skepticism of mail and early voting, endorsed candidates who favored Election Day voting and talked about banning the alternatives, and repeatedly told audiences that they could overcome the Democratic Party’s fraud machine only if they showed up in person.

“Vote on election day, because it’s harder for them to cheat,” Trump told supporters at his final pre-midterm rally this month, in Ohio. “It’s much harder because they don’t know how many votes they have to produce. They don’t know how many ballots they have to print out. You know? You keep them in suspense and then you say: ‘Nope, we beat you here.’”

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Trump’s view of early and absentee voting as a scam was pervasive, even in states like Arizona, where Republicans had already built successful turnout operations around pre-Election Day voters. It was vaguely rooted in something true: Widespread mail and early voting helped campaigns bank support and figure out how much more turnout they needed to guarantee a win. Some Republican campaigns translated that into a doomed pseudo-strategy: Hold off on voting until the last minute, and surprise the Democrats with a red wave.

“If everyone could stand in long, long lines at 6 o’clock, that would actually help us,” a strategist for Maryland GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox told supporters at a late October rally. Cox did run stronger on Election Day than he did in mail and early voting, to no avail, losing by 32 points.

But in 2022, plenty of Republicans took advantage of the system and built get-out-the-vote campaigns to lock in early votes. In Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp steamrolled a Trump-endorsed rival in his primary, the campaign spent $4 million to fund 130 door-knockers, who could convince reliable Republican voters to show up early.

The campaign needed to cut into the Democrats’ early-vote advantage and overwhelm it on Election Day. It pulled that off, losing the early vote by a point in its own modeling, and shrinking the hill that it needed to climb on Nov. 8.

“Adapt or die,” said Cody Hall, a Kemp strategist who served as the campaign’s communications director. “We used to be better at utilizing whatever the rules were in states to get our voters to the polls. We’ve got to get back to that. We’ll lose close races if we don’t.”

Kemp did not criticize early voting. Lake did, suggesting that the tradition of Election Day had been corrupted into “election season, election month.” Both parties braced for a GOP advantage on Election Day, and they got one.

They also got problems that Democrats, by prioritizing earlier voting, had managed to avoid. Ballots cast before Election Day were locked up to be tabulated later. Ballots cast on Nov. 8 were put into tabulators immediately, where election officials discovered that dozens of printers, across 70 of Maricopa County’s 223 polling places, were producing ballots too faint to be counted properly.

That problem was resolved by mid-morning; printers were fixed, and the affected ballots were placed in one box to be counted later. But Republicans were disproportionately affected, because they disproportionately voted on what ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon called “game day,” as a way to overwhelm whatever Democrats got in the early vote.

“Democrats don’t vote on Election Day!” Bannon said in a Monday interview with Lake campaign spokeswoman Caroline Wren. “They vote before, hey, guess what, when there were no problems. Isn’t that interesting?”

Lake’s campaign is questioning the results, though its ability to challenge them is limited; when the tabulation finished on Monday, she trailed by more than 0.5%, outside the bounds for a recount. Outgoing Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who lost the party’s U.S. Senate nomination this year after Trump said he did not do enough to challenge the 2020 election, has asked Maricopa County officials for “​​a full report and accounting of the myriad problems that occurred'' before the Nov. 28 certification.

Trump’s original criticism of mail and early voting went hand-in-hand with a legal strategy aimed at invalidating Democratic votes. After the 2020 race was over, and the margins in swing states were known, his campaign sued in multiple states to throw out ballots that were cast under new rules approved by election officials during the pandemic, targeting an early voting event in Wisconsin’s most liberal city, for instance, and all absentee votes in the state of Pennsylvania, knowing they were more likely to be cast for Joe Biden.

None of the 2020 lawsuits affected that election’s outcome. But encouraging Republicans not to vote early, and to wait for the busiest and final day to cast ballots, might have affected the GOP’s chances in Arizona. Lake’s team now agrees, and suggests that the GOP needed to deploy on all forms of voting if it wanted to win.

“Most Republicans, including myself, believe that we should vote in person, on Election Day,” Wren told Semafor. “[But] we can no longer ignore that the Democrats are engaging in widespread ballot harvesting and weaponizing weeks of early and mail-in voting…. We must use all tools available to us, such as ballot harvesting and mail-in voting, until we can get Republicans into office that have the will and determination to finally clean up our elections.”

undefined headshotDavid 's view

The midterm aftermath feels more and more like the “fever break” that anti-Trump Democrats, and Republicans, expected after 2020. Polling found most Republicans agreeing with Trump’s electoral monomyth, that Democrats used the pandemic to rig the voting system. After 2022, a fairly normal election where Republicans hit their turnout goals and won less than they expected, more Republicans are openly disagreeing with Trump, worried that his obsession is leading MAGA candidates to sabotage their own campaigns.

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