Why are Texas Republicans and Trump afraid of vote-by-mail?

by | Jun 25, 2020 | Policy, Voting

President Trump intensified his fear-mongering campaign against voting by mail this week, warning in a series of tweets that foreign countries would print millions of mail ballots to rig U.S. elections.

It’s the latest fabricated claim from the president about voting by mail. In response to Democratic legislation last month to expand the number of people that could vote by mail, Trump fumed that Republicans would never win an election again.

Texas Republicans, particularly Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, have followed in Trump’s footsteps and have also engaged in a crusade against expanding access to mail ballots. In recent months, the trio of Texas leaders has fought tooth and nail in state and federal courts, as well as against local officials, to keep current vote-by-mail restrictions in place in Texas — one of only 16 states that requires an excuse for voters to receive an absentee ballot.

In Texas, only those 65 or older, in jail, out of the country, or with a disability can apply to vote by mail. 

Throughout the legal battle of trying to keep those requirements in place, Abbott and Paxton have presented themselves as gatekeepers to Texas’ election code, combing over the fine print of the law to protect the integrity of Texas democracy. But Trump has given the game away, and it’s clear the efforts by Texas Republicans boil down to preventing (or preserving) any partisan advantage that may derive from changes to current mail ballot rules.

At face value, it makes sense. The Republican base of support in Texas is whiter and older than that of Democrats. Presumably, keeping restrictions that only benefit older voters would help Republicans and harm Democrats.

In reality, study after study has shown expanding access to absentee ballots benefits both parties, something well-known by political scientists. One study by researchers at Stanford University found that multiple states that recently adopted universal vote by mail (where all voters are automatically sent mail ballots) had no discernible effect on party vote shares or the partisan share of the electorate in ensuing elections. In fact, it actually led to a modest bump in turnout. 

“You’re expanding the electorate, but you’re expanding it in a way that is beneficial to both Republicans and Democrats,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus. 

“What I think Republicans think, is that in a state like Texas which has got a larger share of non-voters who lean more to the Democratic party, that if you expand the electorate it could help Democrats,” Rottinghaus said. “That’s probably true, but what they’re discounting is the fact that there are Republican-leaning non-voters who would also vote by mail if they could.”

Those thoughts were echoed by Houston Democratic strategist Keir Murray, who said some states that have expanded mail ballot access have actually seen some Republicans win. 

“I’d be surprised if we see any change to the actual rules, unless there’s some problem with Republican voters in the primary runoff — that would be the one thing that might make Abbott and others change their tune,” Murray said.

Amazingly, Texas Republicans are almost entirely alone in their desire to have a small electorate. A total of 46 states are offering some form of by-mail voting for all voters since the pandemic began, according to a recent report by Open Source Election Technology. The makeup of those states has been overwhelmingly bipartisan, with 22 Republican governors and 24 Democratic governors. 

Trump and Texas Republicans have attempted to wave away criticism over their opposition to expanding by-mail voting by citing concerns over voter fraud. Those claims of widespread vote-by-mail voter fraud have been repeatedly debunked, most recently by an analysis by the Washington Post that found a 0.0025 rate (372 cases) of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people, out of millions of mail ballots cast in three states. 

Joaquin Gonzalez, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said instances of voter fraud are rare in Texas too. 

“The number of people who are going to be potentially disenfranchised because they’re scared to vote in person outweighs by an order of magnitude any concerns about voter fraud,” he said.

Photo: Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/Digital First Media/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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