- Florida is the latest state to enact GOP-backed restrictions on mail voting.
- Many of these laws may appease Trump rather than help the GOP.
- Despite Trump’s claims, there is no evidence that mail voting helped Democrats.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Flanked by a smiling crowd of supporters at the Airport Hilton in West Palm Beach on Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the latest in a wave of Republican-backed bills restricting mail voting at an event that only Fox News was allowed to carry live.
Between Fox News scoring an exclusive for the signing and the effusive praise from the “Fox & Friends'” hosts for DeSantis, the event was clearly made-for-Trump television.
The law itself, like so many of the hundreds of others being pushed by Republican state lawmakers in dozens of states, was tailored to appease former President Donald Trump and his allies’ baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Senate Bill 90 requires Floridians to apply to vote by mail more frequently, restricts ballot drop boxes, and bans election offices from accepting private grants (which DeSantis derisively termed “Zuckerbucks”) that helped many run the 2020 election during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump won Florida by over 3 percentage points.
Before Florida, Georgia Republicans passed Senate Bill 202, a law that gives the state legislature more power over the State Elections Board and demotes Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who became Trump’s target after defending the integrity of the presidential election.
The law empowers the board to discipline and suspend local election officials while limiting its capacity to enter into consent decrees and settlements, like the one in March 2020 that fixated Trump.
Cutting back on mail voting likely won’t move the needle for the GOP
Both Democrats and Republicans frequently assume that more voting options, like expanded mail and early voting, mean higher turnout and that the higher voter turnout always helps Democrats.
Neither of those assumptions is always true. Especially with voting by mail, there’s little evidence that the unprecedented spike in mail voting in 2020 benefitted Democrats or even meaningfully boosted voter turnout in many cases.
One working paper from Stanford University concluded that the rise of “no-excuse absentee voting mobilized relatively few voters and had at most a muted partisan effect despite the historic pandemic.”
The researchers examined data from Texas, which allows only certain categories of voters, including those 65 and above, to request to vote absentee. While the rates at which seniors chose to vote absentee increased, they turned out to vote at virtually the same rate as 64-year-olds, with the greatest turnout increases reported among 20- to 30-year-olds, who, for the most part, were not allowed to vote absentee.
Another study from the Public Policy Institute of California found that states sending all registered voters a ballot was associated with significant increases in voter turnout, but not gains for Democrats. In fact, Democrats’ vote share decreased across all voting methods compared to elections before 2020, suggesting that in at least some cases, a rise in mail voting may have helped Republicans.
And Republicans performed exceptionally well at the down-ballot level with record levels of mail and early voting. The GOP held onto several competitive Senate seats, won back 12 House seats, and, picked up over 80 state legislative seats nationwide ahead of a crucial redistricting year.
The GOP base has also shifted under Trump to include fewer wealthy, college-educated voters and more non-college-educated, lower-propensity voters, as The New York Times’ Ross Douthat recently pointed out.
Many of those new GOP voters could face challenges accessing the ballot box because of the restrictive voting laws being pushed by Republicans.
It’s too soon to know the true impact of these bills, but all evidence so far suggests they’re doing far more to appease Trump and support his repeated lies about the 2020 results than they will to boost the GOP’s electoral performance or increase election security.
Florida could end up being a cautionary tale for rushing to restrict voting
Florida rushing to cut back on a tried-and-true electoral strategy in response to the whims of one politician could backfire on Republicans, as The Washington Post recently reported.
Florida expanded vote by mail to all citizens in the early 2000s and the Republican Party apparatus in the state built up a robust get-out-the-vote operation with mail ballots that has helped Republican candidates win there for decades.
In 2018, the year DeSantis defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race and Sen. Rick Scott ousted Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, Republicans cast 54,000 more mail ballots than Democrats.
-Benjamin Freed (@brfreed) May 6, 2021
Even Trump, who spent months perpetuating lies about mail voting, praised Florida’s mail voting system as “safe and secure” in August 2020, and has voted by mail in Florida four times in 2020 and 2021.
But Trump’s one-time assurance about Florida wasn’t enough to counteract the avalanche of misinformation that he spewed in the months leading to the November election.
In 2020, the decades-long trend of Republicans outpacing Democrats in mail voting in the state dramatically reversed, with registered Democrats casting 683,000 more mail ballots than Republicans.
By the 2022 elections, many senior citizens in Florida who relied on mail voting for years may be surprised to find that their mail ballot application has expired or that they have to travel further to reach a dropbox.
“Any time either party tries to make a change in the way we think about elections because of one election cycle, it’s kind of fraught with danger,” Florida-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale told The Post.
“I do not believe we know enough about voting behavior to know that Democrats are going to vote by mail forever going forward,” he said. “In the same way, Republicans have voted by mail for 20 years, and we don’t know they’re going to stop just because Donald Trump doesn’t like it.”