ATLANTA -- After years of criticizing mail voting and so-called ballot harvesting as ripe for fraud, Republicans at the top of the party want to change course.
They are poised to launch aggressive get-out-the-vote campaigns for 2024 that employ just those strategies, attempting to match the emphasis on early voting Democrats have used for years to lock in many of their supporters well ahead of Election Day. The goal is to persuade voters who support GOP candidates that early voting techniques are secure and to make sure they are able to return their ballots in time to be counted, thus putting less pressure on Election Day turnout efforts.
It marks a notable shift from the party's rhetoric since 2020, when then-President Donald Trump was routinely sowing doubt about mail voting and encouraging his voters to wait and vote in-person on Election Day. As recently as last year, Republican activists peddling the stolen election narrative were telling GOP voters who received mail ballots to hold onto them and turn them in at their polling place on Election Day rather than use mail or drop boxes.
Now Trump is asking donors to chip in for his “ballot harvesting fund” – saying in a fundraising email, “Either we ballot harvest where we can, or you can say goodbye to America!”
Republicans say the shift is needed to ensure GOP victories up and down the 2024 ballot, arguing they cannot afford to give Democrats any advantage. At the same time, they acknowledge skepticism from many of their own voters conditioned by false claims of widespread voter fraud from Trump and others.
Across the country, Republican-controlled legislatures have acted against early voting — shortening windows for returning mail ballots, banning or limiting the use of drop boxes and criminalizing third-party ballot collection.
In announcing a “Bank Your Vote” initiative for 2024, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the party “has never said ‘don’t vote early,'” but acknowledged the GOP will have to work to shift voters' perceptions.
“That certainly is a challenge if you have people in your ecosystem saying, ‘Don’t vote early or don’t vote by mail,’ and those cross messages do have an impact,” McDaniel told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t think you’re seeing that heading into 2024. I think you’re seeing all of us singing from the same songbook.”
The nationwide GOP plan emphasizes “in-person early voting, absentee voting, and ballot harvesting where legal,” while also pledging “to fight against bad ballot harvesting laws.” Republicans use the term to describe when someone else returns a mailed ballot on behalf of another voter, especially third parties that gather multiple ballots.
McDaniel emphasized she remains opposed to ballot collection, and she said the party would deploy an army of poll watchers and election monitors to reassure Republican voters that their ballots will be protected.
“Do I think it’s the most secure way of voting? No,” McDaniel said. “But if it’s the law, we’re going to have to do it just like the Democrats are.”
The challenge will be providing a consistent message that reassures GOP voters.
The same day McDaniel announced her initiative, Republicans in Congress were holding a hearing considering legislation that, among other things, would ban ballot collection in the District of Columbia. GOP state lawmakers around the country have chipped away at advanced voting opportunities since 2020. Some state and local election Republicans have gone further, advocating for just a single day of voting.
After the 2020 presidential election, the movie “2000 Mules” was a popular video that made various debunked claims about mail ballots, drop boxes and ballot collection. Even the co-chair of the new GOP strategy, U. S. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., has been a critic. In November, he issued a call on social media to “End ballot harvesting.”
Nonetheless, McDaniel noted that Republican presidential candidates, including Trump, have been talking about the importance of advance voting and ballot collection.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a high-profile GOP contender, recently told a voter he planned to launch his own “ballot harvesting” effort, according to video posted online by a Washington Post reporter. DeSantis said he wasn’t going to “fight with one hand tied behind my back.”
The Trump and DeSantis campaigns did not respond to messages seeking details about ballot collection plans. Florida is among the mostly Republican-led states that have sought to ban or limit the practice in recent years, despite the GOP's reliance there on older, more conservative voters who prefer voting methods other than casting Election Day ballots.
Since the 2020 election, lawmakers in 31 states have introduced 124 bills that would restrict third-party ballot returns, according to data collected by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting-related legislation in the states. Of those, 14 bills in 11 states have been enacted. That includes one DeSantis himself signed that makes it a felony for an individual to collect more than two mail ballots other than the person’s own or one belonging to an immediate family member.
While some states are silent on the issue, 31 states allow someone other than the voter to return a ballot on behalf of another voter. Nine limit how many ballots one person can return, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many states limit ballot handling to a family member, household member or caregiver.
In California, efforts to lock in the early vote could be decisive next year in a string of U.S. House districts, most of them in the southern California suburbs, that are expected to play a pivotal role in determining control of the chamber. California is a Democratic stronghold, but Republicans retain pockets of strength across rural and small-town areas and the Central Valley farm belt, while the state's suburban congressional districts have yielded many tights races in recent election cycles.
As many as nine congressional seats are considered competitive, and several races will play out in districts won by President Joe Biden but where the seat is held by a Republican. Each of California’s 22 million registered voters is mailed a ballot one month before Election Day.
“In any close election, the ability to capture absentee votes becomes extremely important, especially in a state like ours, where every single voter has a ballot in their home,” conservative activist Jon Fleishman said.
Democrats were critical of the new GOP effort after years of messaging by Republicans against mail voting.
“Donald Trump and extremist Republicans have spent years telling lies about elections to justify their losses. That includes demonizing mail ballots and ballot collection,” said Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state and head of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “These hypocritical extremists are only interested in spreading chaos and trying to gain power at any cost.”
Top Republicans remain determined to make the case within their own ranks, said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C.
“We’ve got to have a change of culture among Republican voters,” said Hudson, who chairs the House GOP’s national campaign committee. “And it’s going to require us all on the same page.”
Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Ali Swenson in New York contributed to this report.