Republican leaders begin to see the folly of ignoring early and mail-in voting.
If there was a sense of doom among smart Republicans in the runup to Herschel Walker’s Georgia Senate defeat on Tuesday, it’s because they understood he’d already been beaten. The evidence sat in a towering pile of mail-in ballots.
The GOP did plenty wrong in this midterm, and any honest autopsy would reckon with its decisions to saddle itself again with subpar Senate candidates (remember 2010?) and to tie its fortunes again to Donald Trump (remember 2020?). But the other big takeaway: Republicans got whupped by Democrats’ early-voting game and may be years behind in a major shift in turnout tactics. The party spent more time grousing over Democrats’ 2020 voting changes than it did asking itself why its opponents were so laser-focused on making mail-in and early voting easier.
It turns out that 720 hours (the month Democrats use to mobilize early voters) is more than 72 hours (the three days Republicans use to mobilize their Election Day voters). Top Republicans have finally discovered arithmetic. “Our voters need to vote early,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ronna McDaniel said this week on Fox News. “There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early,’ and we have to stop that and understand that if Democrats are getting ballots in for a month, we can’t expect to get it all done in day.”
The Georgia Senate results sum it up. This week’s runoff saw all-time midterm records in both early and absentee voting in a midterm. Some 1.9 million people cast their ballot prior to Tuesday, and Democrat Raphael Warnock won 64% of those voting absentee and 58% of those voting early. Yes, Mr. Walker had a good election day, winning 57% of votes cast Tuesday. But turnout for the day was 1.6 million, or 46% of the total vote.
Some will note that a failed GOP early game didn’t stop Gov. Brian Kemp or other statewide Republicans from winning decisive victories in November. But Mr. Walker’s troubled candidacy was the shining example of the need for a more sophisticated early-voting plan. Candidates who don’t excite voters shouldn’t count on their flocking to the polls on Election Day. Better to track them down and lock their votes in.
Which is exactly what Democrats have been doing. In states with early voting, the left now has a vast apparatus to bank votes. And they’ve proved this a positive-sum game. Early and mail-in voting is a chance to commit citizens who otherwise wouldn’t vote, or who might not be a sure thing on Election Day. Those numbers can be large, as evidenced by big shifts in turnout depending on the year or candidates.
In states that send out applications for mail-in voting, liberal groups wait for these taxpayer-funded mailings and pounce. They target “their” voters with texts, calls and ads, pushing them to get the applications in. They do the same in states where voters must actively request ballots. Then they do it all over again once the ballots arrive, in many states “harvesting” by going door to door to encourage their voters to fill out ballots and returning them on their behalf.
They’ve also figured out how to pair early voting with savvy campaign tactics. Think it was an accident Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman, recovering from a stroke, delayed his debate with Mehmet Oz until Oct. 25? He put in a shockingly bad performance, but by debate night nearly half of absentee ballots had already been returned. Nearly a quarter of all ballots cast were via mail, and Mr. Fetterman won 78% of them.
Democrats and aligned groups pour real resources into this effort; GOP groups continue to throw their budgets at broadcast airtime. Not that they necessarily have a ton of folks waiting to be early-recruited. As recently as last week, Mr. Trump was insisting on Truth Social that we “CAN NEVER HAVE FAIR AND FREE ELECTIONS WITH MAIL-IN BALLOTS—NEVER, NEVER, NEVER.” Mr. Trump’s home state of Florida proves the opposite. The Florida GOP in recent years doubled down on voter registration and alternate voting. Republicans crushed Democrats in early voting and barely trailed in mail votes. That was all part of the Florida GOP’s stunning victories at every level of government.
In a perfect world, every state would go back to Election Day voting—it’s cleaner and a civic duty. But early and absentee voting aren’t going away. The GOP can moan about it, continue to freak their voters out about election integrity, fritter away weeks of vote gathering—and lose. Or they can get in the game.
Appeared in the December 9, 2022, print edition as ‘The GOP’s Lost Vote Harvest’.