DES MOINES, Iowa – President Donald Trump's campaign and allies have blocked efforts to expand mail-in voting, forcing an awkward confrontation with top GOP election officials who are promoting the opposite in their states.
The rare dissonance between Trump and other Republican elected officials also reflects another reality the president will not concede: Many in his party believe expanding mail-in voting could ultimately help him.
Trump's campaign has intervened directly in Ohio, while allies have fired warning shots in Iowa and Georgia, aimed at blunting Republican secretaries of state in places that could be competitive in November.
“There is a dimension to legislatures underfunding or undercutting election officials that could ironically backfire and hurt Republicans,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor and director of the nonpartisan United States Election Project.
Action by these three secretaries of state, who are the top election officials in their states, was designed to make ballot access easier during the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has repeatedly made the unfounded claim that voting by mail could lead to fraud so extensive it could undermine the integrity of the presidential election.
In Ohio last month, senior Trump campaign adviser Bob Paduchik weighed in on Secretary of State Frank LaRose's proposal, insisting to GOP legislative leaders that they drop a provision to allow voters to file absentee ballot applications online, according to Republican officials involved in the discussions. The GOP officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal communications regarding the legislation.
Ohio already allows the secretary of state to send absentee ballot requests to every registered voter. The provision was aimed at allowing a faster processing option, while making mail-in application processing available.
Paduchik, Trump's 2016 Iowa campaign director, insisted there be no substantive changes ahead of the November election in Ohio, which Trump won in 2016 by 8 percentage points under the existing rules, according to the GOP officials.
Trump campaign aides did not respond to requests for comment.
“This bill didn't do everything I wanted it to do. In fact, there's several things I wanted to get done that are not included in this bill," LaRose said in a video statement this month, promising to try ”to get some of those other changes made in the future."
Trump has railed against expanding vote by mail, arguing without evidence that the practice, despite being the primary voting method in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah, is ripe for widespread fraud.
On Sunday, he renewed the criticism, tweeting “Mail-In Voting, on the other hand, will lead to the most corrupt Election is USA history. Bad things happen with Mail-Ins.”
That claim is part of a pattern. He also has incorrectly equated a secretary of state widely distributing absentee ballot requests with the ballots themselves in Michigan.
Last week, after Iowa voters broke a 26-year-old statewide primary election turnout record, the Iowa Senate's GOP majority pressed to bar Secretary of State Paul Pate from sending absentee ballots to all 2 million registered voters this fall, as he did before the June 3 primary.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Trump ally, last week signed compromise legislation requiring Pate and his successors to seek approval from a partisan legislative council for similar future actions. The GOP-controlled council unanimously rejected Pate's request to widely send absentee ballot applications this fall.
“My goal was to protect Iowa voters and poll workers while finding ways to conduct a clean and fair election," Pate said last month. “I stand by my decisions.”
His Georgia counterpart, Brad Raffensperger, faced a similar fate after he, too, sent absentee ballot applications to nearly 7 million registered voters ahead of the state’s June primary. Although Raffensperger objected to proposed limits being put on his authority, legislation to do that died when the legislature adjourned and after he said he would not repeat the move this fall.
Trump carried Georgia, Iowa and Ohio comfortably in 2016. To win again, he would likely need to match his sizable winning margins in their rural counties, home to many in his older, white base.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has backed mail-in voting, saying it would make it easier for people to vote this November amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Some longtime GOP activists say expanded vote by mail is essential for older voters who are accustomed to voting in person but hesitant to during the pandemic and who are unfamiliar with the process.
Ann Trimble Ray, a veteran Iowa GOP activist, voted in June by mail and says Pate made the right call, especially for the many older voters in her rural home in Sac County, which Trump carried with 72% of the 2016 vote.
“Reducing their exposure by voting absentee, we think, was a considerate thing to do," she said. “I was grateful for Secretary of State Pate's mailing and encouragement for absentee voting."
Consolidation of rural polling places, shrunken election staff and long lines may deter rural voters vital to Trump, said University of California Irvine professor Richard Hasen, chair of a committee of U.S. scholars that has recommended changes ahead of the 2020 elections.
“The voters Trump is hurting are likely his own when he’s making these comments against mail-in balloting," said Hasen, “because it’s a safe and generally effective way to cast a ballot, especially in the midst of a pandemic."
The check on ballot request steps in Iowa and Georgia also could threaten rural votes from being counted, based on McDonald's study.
Though Ohio counts all mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, a number of absentee ballots came in late for the March 17 primary, including 4,000 in Greene County in southeast Ohio, a county where Trump won 60% of the vote.
Understaffed election offices and longer processing time between rural areas and metro postal centers could leave some rural voters unable to mail their ballots on time, McDonald said.
“I’m pretty convinced that ballot request step is hurting rural voters," McDonald said.
Associated Press writers Ben Nadler in Atlanta, David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.