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Republicans are trying to unring the bell on mail voting

Voting sign in English and Spanish.
Wikimedia Commons
Voting sign in English and Spanish.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Two years ago, Democrat Cheri Beasley ran against Republican Ted Budd for U.S. Senate.

Beasley dominated mail voting — getting 134,000 votes to Budd’s 48,000.

She also won early, in-person voting — getting 1.04 million votes to Budd’s 932,000.

Still, Budd won the race by a little more than three percentage points based on Election Day turnout.

But the GOP doesn’t want to continue relying on fourth-quarter comebacks.

Republicans are warming up to non-Election Day voting (or trying to), having realized Democrats have exploited it to their advantage.

The GOP’s problem, however, is that Republicans — most notably former President Trump — have trashed mail voting since the 2020 election. Trump has called it “an effort to rig the presidential election.”

Dallas Woodhouse, the former executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, is trying to unring that bell. He’s telling North Carolina conservatives they should embrace early voting and mail voting.

He works for the nonprofit American Majority, which describes itself as a group that “trains, organizes, mobilizes, and equips new grassroots conservative leaders.”

But he said his personal project is convincing conservatives to cast ballots by mail or during early voting. He said he’s been to about one-third of North Carolina counties so far to make a presentation about the benefits of pre-Election Day voting.

He plans to hit most of the rest of the state before early voting begins in September.

“One of the things that we talk about a lot is that three people can vote identically down the ballot,” he said. “But if one requests a mail ballot and votes 50 days before the election, and one votes on the first day of early voting, and one votes on Election Day — they may all count the same but they don’t all cost the same.”

By "cost" he means the amount of money the campaign and state party must spend to turn out voters. If someone has already cast a ballot by mail or early voting, their name can be scratched off the list — with volunteers moving on to other voters.

His goal, he said, is to move voters “one rung up the ladder.”

That means an Election Day voter may vote early in person. An early in-person voter may move to mail voting. And an infrequent voter may get to the polls on Election Day.

Conservatives don’t trust mail voting

Woodhouse acknowledges this won’t be easy.

“A lot of conservatives get their information from national news media like Fox and Newsmax that are probably reporting rightfully on disturbing things that happen in other states, states that have massive mailings of unrequested ballots which is not particularly secure,” he said. “N.C. does not do these things.”

Woodhouse was referring to places like California, which allows third parties to collect completed mail ballots from voters — a process known as “ballot harvesting.”

Claims about the 2020 election being stolen are baseless. But problems about mail voting are not made from thin air.

Six years ago, North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, east of Charlotte, was home to one of the nation’s biggest election fraud scandals. McCrae Dowless, a political operative working for Republican Mark Harris, was accused of illegally collecting completed and uncompleted mail ballots — in an election decided by 905 votes.

Woodhouse attended the state elections board’s investigatory hearing in early 2019 as the executive director of the N.C. GOP. For a while he carried a whiteboard during the proceedings, tallying up the disputed votes, trying to show there weren’t enough to overturn the election.

Harris ended up calling for a new election anyway, making the whiteboard moot. Republican Dan Bishop won the nearly unprecedented redo.

(Harris mounted a comeback this year and won the GOP primary for the 8th District. He’s a heavy favorite to win this fall.)

Man with whiteboard
File Photo
Dallas Woodhouse with a whiteboard at the N.C. Elections Board hearing in 2019.

Mail voting surged in 2020

After the 2018 mail ballot scandal, mail voting exploded in popularity among Democrats during the 2020 election because of COVID.

In the 2016 presidential election in North Carolina, 4% of ballots were cast by mail. In 2020, that jumped to 18%.

Trump has said mail ballots are a “disaster” and talked about “counterfeit ballots.” Mail voting was one reason, he said, the 2020 election was “rigged.”

But by 2023, the GOP changed its tune.

The Republican National Committee announced last year it was starting a program called Bank Your Vote to encourage mail and early voting. Even Trump recorded a message last month, encouraging people to vote in a number of ways, including by mail.

When asked about his own thoughts about mail voting and early voting, Woodhouse compared it to baseball.

“I’m not a big fan of the designated hitter,” he said. “But as long as that’s the rule, we have to live by it.”

Woodhouse said most Republicans are receptive to his push, though he said one or two in each group he speaks to won’t be moved from their position that mail voting is fraudulent.

A new way to think about the voting pool

Conventional wisdom has been that Democrats do better when the voting pool is expanded.

But things have changed in the Trump era.

As more college-educated, frequent voters have moved to the Democratic Party since 2016, Republicans appear to benefit when the voting pool is expanded to include less regular voters.

The New York Timesreported that Trump’s polling leads are due to his large advantage with people who didn’t vote four years ago, for instance.

But North Carolina Republican legislative leaders are considering additional ways to restrict voting.

They eliminated a three-day grace period for mail ballots to arrive after Election Day. They are trying to launch a pilot program to use a computer signature matching program to verify mail ballots.

House Speaker Tim Moore has floated the idea of reducing the length of early voting.

And they implemented photo ID, which, at first glance, doesn’t appear to benefit Republicans in any significant way.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.