Republican efforts to suppress votes could backfire on President Trump now that he must count on a massive wave of Election Day voters to counteract the Democrats’ early advantage.
Republicans have led a nationwide campaign to limit the ways people can vote and the leeway state officials have to count ballots. In the massive battleground state of Texas, for instance, Republican-heavy counties have rejected changes aimed at making voting safer and easier during the pandemic that were embraced in Democratic strongholds.
Now, the GOP is betting everything on an overwhelming Election Day turnout. But as Republican voters scramble to the polls amid a worsening pandemic, legal and political experts told VICE News they could stumble over obstacles that the Republican Party itself helped ensure would be in place.
“If your strategy is based on making it hard for voters to show up, the voters who don’t show up might be your own,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who previously served as deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice under former President Barack Obama.
But it’s not just attempts to curtail voting that could torpedo Republican dreams of a massive, last-minute voter surge—it’s Trump’s monthslong assault on mail-in voting, and his admission that he opposed extra funding for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). He has repeatedly suggested that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud, despite a lack of evidence, and even though Republicans have relied on it in the past as a method to boost turnout in electoral heavyweight states like Florida.
That assault could have been a big miscalculation.
“It might be that by seeking to underfund and understaff the USPS, Trump inadvertently encouraged large numbers of Biden voters to vote early, so that could end up being a self-defeating strategy,” said Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law and social thought at Amherst College.
Historic early turnout this year has shattered previous records, and early data suggests that Democrats have cast almost twice as many mail-in ballots as Republicans, according to the United States Election Project.
“Efforts to dampen early voting among Democrats failed,” said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Texas. “Any problems on Election Day will now probably work against Republicans, and not in their favor.”
Earlier this year, Texas refused to expand mail-in voting despite the pandemic, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott limited the state to just one mail-in drop box per county.
The Democratic stronghold of Harris County, which includes much of Houston, however, dramatically expanded access to early voting, including a drive-thru voting system that has already banked almost 130,000 votes.
Republican counties generally followed the governor’s lead and declined to extend new provisions that would make it easier to vote early, or to avoid crowds during the pandemic, Jones said. Now those GOP counties are counting on a massive surge on Election Day that could create lines and increase waiting times at polls, possibly deterring some voters from sticking around to cast their ballot in GOP-leaning suburban areas, Jones said.
“There’s now a risk that you may have a crush of people coming to vote in Republican-leaning suburbs between 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.,” Jones said. “The fear for Republicans would be that some people would take a look at that line and just go home instead.”
The U.S. is in the grips of yet another wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly 100,000 cases reported nationally on Friday—a single-day record. Although Trump has spent months trying to minimize the threat of the virus, many of the Midwestern states that he’s now trying to win, like Wisconsin and Iowa, are seeing a rise in cases.
On Sunday, the same day Trump gave a speech in Iowa where he falsely claimed that the U.S. was “rounding the corner” in its fight against the coronavirus, more than 1,000 people tested positive for the coronavirus in the state. A record number of Iowans—nearly 700—were also hospitalized.
Trump isn’t the only Republican trying to win Iowa. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is in a close race with Democrat Theresa Greenfield. If Ernst loses her Senate seat, the GOP’s control of the chamber is in trouble.
“What fraction of Republicans… on election morning are gonna wake up and realize that tomorrow is probably gonna set the record for the pandemic for the number of cases and the number of deaths?” said Charles Stewart, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor.
“Will it shave a point or two off of the Trump vote that would be cast?” Stewart continued. “If it is, that could be several tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of votes nationwide.”
The pandemic might also create staffing problems in rural, Trump-friendly areas where polling stations rely on a tiny handful of staffers to show up and run the vote, election experts said.
In the battleground state of Wisconsin, National Guard members in plainclothes are being dispatched to make up for a deficit of poll workers, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told VICE News on Monday.
There are so many unprecedented variables at play that it makes it impossible for candidates to game out how Election Day might go, said Donna Hoffman, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.
“You never know what it’s gonna look like. Is it gonna be raining? Is it gonna be snowing? Is there gonna be a pandemic on Election Day?” she said.
And that complexity makes it dangerous to bet on a single day turning everything around.
“It’s always a bad idea to undercut votes, even if you’re trying to game it so that you undercut the other person’s vote and not your own,” Hoffman said. “Yes, I do think that can backfire.”