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Republicans Are Accidentally Suppressing Their Own Voters

Donald Trump’s weird obsession with mail-in voting is doing collateral damage to GOP lawmakers’ illiberal designs.

A scowling Donald Trump looks on at a White House meeting.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

An unnamed Democratic congressional aide told The Washington Post this week that the mood in his party is “panic.” The cause of that panic is a raft of legislation in various Republican-controlled states that’s designed to limit voters’ access to the polls. These laws are genuine cause for concern, but their most common component—restrictions on mail-in balloting—will likely harm Republican candidates more than Democratic ones.

It’s counterintuitive that partisan efforts to undermine democratic governance should hinder rather than advance partisan self-interest. The very idea would drive a game theoretician mad. But the Republicans’ drive to rig elections in their favor—which extends back two decadesturns out, hilariously, to be yet another GOP tradition that’s being undermined by the delusions of Donald Trump.

Don’t get me wrong: Many components of these rapidly proliferating state vote-restricting laws, including 22 that have passed in 14 states since the first of the year, are clear-headed partisan efforts to limit the number of Democratic voters. Passing the voting rights bill currently before the Senate, which seeks to protect voters from partisan disenfranchisement (and, more importantly, to eliminate partisan gerrymandering), is a matter of vital importance.

The GOP’s campaign to limit the franchise began with promoting and passing stricter state voter ID laws. These probably remain the Republicans’ most plausible tool to rig elections in their favor. Wyoming’s House Bill 75, which was signed into law on April 7, requires voters to present identification at the polling place; Black voters (who mostly vote Democratic) are three times more likely than white voters to lack such ID, according to NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Limits on drop-box and early voting hours are similarly customized to exclude Black (hence Democratic) votes. Georgia’s Senate Bill 202, signed into law on March 25, requires drop boxes to be located only at early polling sites, and made available only during in-person voting hours, which are mostly limited to weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Because there’s a tradition of African Americans voting on Sunday, the Georgia bill permits at most two early voting Sundays. Additionally, the law cuts back drastically the number of already limited voter drop boxes. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, these will be reduced in number in Atlanta’s four core counties from 111 to 23. Two of those four counties, DeKalb and Fulton, are 55 percent and 45 percent Black, respectively.

Where the Republican disenfranchisement campaign goes awry is in its pursuit to limit mail balloting. According to the Brennan Center, at least 16 of the 22 newly enacted state laws restricting access to the vote would restrict mail-in balloting through various types of petty harassment: shortening the period during which a voter is permitted to request a mail-in ballot, shortening the amount of time a voter has to deliver his or her ballot, limiting the number of voters who are automatically entitled to mail-in ballots, cutting back on available assistance to mail-in voters, and so on. Mail-in restrictions have been enacted in 12 of the 14 states that have limited ballot access since January 1. By comparison, only eight of those 14 states limited in-person voting. In the disenfranchisement café, curbing mail-in ballots is this month’s special.

Why should that be? Because Trump is absolutely obsessed with mail-in voting. Before he deleted his “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” blog this week (archived here), Trump wrote that Georgia’s draconian new disenfranchisement law was “far too weak and soft.” The very first reason he gave was that the law failed to eliminate “no-excuse, widespread mass Mail-In Voting.”

You may recall that Trump ended the first presidential debate on September 29 with an extended homily on the evils of mail balloting:

There’s fraud. They found ’em in creeks. They found some, with the name Trump, just happened to have the name Trump, just the other day in a wastepaper basket. They’re being sent all over the place. They sent two in a Democrat area. They sent out a thousand ballots. Everybody got two ballots. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.

Joe Biden pointed out that this was wrong. The moderator, Chris Wallace, pointed out that this was wrong. Various news organizations, including the Associated Press, pointed out that Trump told various lies at the debate about mail-in ballots. But Trump would not be dissuaded, either before the election or after, that mail-in ballots put him at a serious disadvantage.

In truth, Trump lost because (among other reasons) he failed to encourage his base to vote by mail. Only about one-third of Trump voters voted by mail, as compared to nearly 60 percent of Biden voters, according to the Pew Research Center. This makes no sense: If anything, more Trump voters should have voted by mail, because Trump voters were older, and older people were the likeliest age demographic to vote by mail. Trump voters were also whiter, and white people were much more likely to vote by mail than Black people. And Trump voters were richer, and rich people were much more likely to vote by mail than people who weren’t rich.

This outcome was not exactly unforeseen. As far back as July, many Republicans were warning that Trump’s war on mail-in balloting would cost him Republican votes. Trump failed to listen and lost; yet now that Trump’s been proven wrong, Republicans are falling in line to limit mail-in balloting. Do anything else, and you’ll anger Trump loyalists, and maybe even the Chief himself.

How do we know Trump was an idiot to oppose mail-in ballots? (I mean, apart from the fact that Trump himself voted by mail in both the Florida primary and the general?) Because in April the Census released some data that demonstrated precisely how costly that opposition proved to be.

Before I dig into these numbers, let me remind you that America is a gerontocracy. The president, Joe Biden, is, at 78, the oldest we’ve ever had. The average ages in Congress are 64.3 (Senate) and 58.4 (House). These averages exceed those in the last three Congresses, and according to The Washington Post, our current Senate is the oldest in history. There are a variety of reasons why our country’s leaders are old, but a key reason, as I’ve explained elsewhere, is that the electorate is disproportionately elderly (voters age 65 and older accounted for 22 percent of the electorate in 2020). The Baby Boom is entering old age, and older people are the likeliest age group to vote.

That Biden is a Democrat demonstrates that old voters don’t always vote for the oldest candidate. Old people do, however, tend to vote Republican. In 2020, the only two age groups that Trump won, according to exit polls, were those aged 65 and older and those aged 50 to 64; younger voters had no use for Trump. That made it extremely important for Trump to maximize his geriatric advantage. But by disparaging mail-in balloting, Trump dumped all over the voting method used in 2020 by nearly 54 percent of voters aged 65 and older, according to census data. Over-65s were the only age group to cast the majority of its votes by mail. (The other age groups cast only 39 or 40 percent of their votes by mail.)

In addition to being very old, people who vote Republican are very white. In 2020, Trump won the white vote 58–41 percent, while losing the Black vote 87–12 percent. But a much higher proportion of white people voted by mail (about 43 percent) than Black people (about 35 percent).

Rich people tend to vote Republican. In 2020, Trump won voters who earn $100,000, by 54–42 percent. But according to the census data, as voters move up the income scale, they become more likely to vote by mail, not less. Among people making $150,000 and over, almost 48 percent voted by mail—more than any other income group.

It’s doubtful that the Republican legislators and governors pushing restrictions on vote by mail are completely unaware that they’re discouraging key Republican constituencies from voting at all. It doesn’t matter. At the moment, the GOP’s overriding imperative is to appease and flatter Trump by yielding to his partisan fixations, never mind their ineptitude. Amid this plague of troubling voter disenfranchisement bills, there’s a ray of hope in that.