Winning on Election Day is No Longer Enough
Mark Uncapher, is serving as President of the Montgomery County Republican Club. Mark is a long-time party activist who previously served as the Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee.
Rethinking Republican Get Out the Vote Efforts
This year, the days after election day have not been kind to Republicans in close races. Election night leads have melted away as mail-in ballots skewing toward Democratic candidates were counted.
Republicans must either update their turnout strategy or prepare to lose more otherwise winnable elections. This requires adopting an “all of the above” strategy for voting. The approach starts with identifying an individual voter’s preferred method and then using follow-up contacts to encourage them to use it.
Eighteen years ago, Get Out the Vote for George W. Bush’s successful reelection was called the “72-Hour Program.” That turnout campaign was concentrated within a very short period. As a result of Early Voting and No- Excuse Mail-in Voting, those old ways for promoting turnout are hopelessly out of date.
One hurdle Republicans must overcome is just accepting the new environment. Activists tend to rail against mail-in ballots, partly because of their understandable concern about fraud. Yet, returning to the primacy of Election Day voting is no longer a realistic prospect. The Democratic legislature will not change it in Maryland, and a divided Congress will not do it either. And, of course, the Republican position nationally has been that outside of constitutional requirements, election procedures should be a state function.
Although many party activists have currently come to discourage mail-in voting because of the 2020 election, polling data suggests that as recently as 2018, most Republicans supported early and mail-in voting. In fact, for decades before 2020, mail-in ballots often were “more Republican” than the total vote.[i]
According to a YouGov poll of 1,500 U.S. adult citizens conducted November 8-9, 2022, 46% of voters voted by mail in 2020, while only 33% did so in 2022. Forty-three percent voted in person on Election Day, and 25% voted early. Most 2022 mail voters returned their ballot by mail, but about one-third returned it to a vote center or ballot drop box. With another election with widespread mail voting, the share of voters who have ever voted by mail has increased. [ii]
In what should be of particular interest to Republicans, partisan differences in vote mode have decreased since 2020. While Democrats were 29 percentage points more likely than Republicans to vote by mail in 2020, there was only a 9-percentage-point difference in 2022. Republicans (45%) remain more likely to vote in person on Election Day than Democrats (37%).[iii]
More mail-in voting may raise the risk of fraud associated with the not insignificant number of registered voters who no longer live at their current address. Combating this requires voter integrity efforts to flag these registrations for appropriate review by Boards of Elections. But this needs to happen long before ballots are cast.
Nevertheless, following up with voters who have requested a mail-in ballot – a so-called “ballot chase” – to make sure they return it can pay significant dividends. Experience with Early Voting suggests that it has had a limited impact on turnout – essentially transferring voting to an earlier date. [iv] Mail-in voting, however, appears to attract a more significant number of “lower probability” voters that may benefit from encouragement to complete the process and return it. [v]
For example, the long-standing practice of posting volunteers in front of polling places now may be more “performance” than an effective turnout strategy. Instead of greeting people already on their way to vote, these volunteers may be more productively used to follow up with potential voters who have not returned their mail-in ballot.
As a leading party official observed recently, the Democrats are winning the turnout process while Republicans are not putting a piece on the chessboard. The reality is, winning on Election Day is no longer enough. Republicans must either adjust to this reality of needing a comprehensive turnout strategy or else prepare to lose more elections.
[v] Another study, “Early voting, direct democracy, and voter mobilization“ by Brian D. Williams, in the Social Science Journal, found that while so-called “core voters” tend to use early voting options, more peripheral voters can be more effectively mobilized by being encouraged to vote by absentee ballot. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1016/j.soscij.2019.08.005