After years of deriding early and mail-in voting, claiming they lead to fraud and help Democrats to steal elections, top Republicans are changing their position, leading to a split in the party as the 2024 election approaches.
The converts atop the party warn that they must adapt or risk further electoral setbacks, especially in key states where early and mail balloting are in place. However, the entrenched foes within Republicans’ election-denier ranks could muddle the party message on voting.
The Republican National Committee recently announced that it had created a program to promote early voting, both by mail and in person. The effort, called Bank Your Vote, further calls for Republicans to take advantage of “ballot harvesting” where it is legal, a practice that allows a third party to collect voters’ completed ballots.
“To win close elections, we need to close the gap on pre-Election Day voting,” Ronna McDaniel, the R.N.C. chair, said in a rollout video for the program.
The reversal is a concession to math and the realities of the moment, as the popularity of mail-in voting shows few signs of receding, three years after the pandemic began and accelerated its use. It also is a grudging recognition that Republicans have failed to gain traction with their baseless claims that mail voting compromises election integrity.
Even former President Donald J. Trump, whose lies and conspiracy theories about his 2020 election loss heightened the party’s distrust of mail voting, has been saying for months that Republicans have “no choice” but to embrace the method, at least until the party has the power to change voting laws.
As Mr. Trump seeks the Oval Office for a third time, his soft-pedaled shift illustrates the divide between the party’s candidates, who want to avoid adding to the string of defeats in 2020 and 2022, and his fervent base of supporters.
Still, Mr. Trump and some of the party’s other standard-bearers have tried to straddle both sides of the issue, sometimes in awkward ways, further confounding their voters.
While headlining the Georgia Republican Party convention this month in a state that doomed his 2020 re-election and is the center of a criminal inquiry into his attempts to subvert his loss, Mr. Trump again sowed distrust of voting by mail.
“Mail-in ballots, by the way, will always be dishonest,” he said.
Mr. Trump, who has regularly voted by mail, falsely claimed that chain-of-custody issues involving mail ballots compromised election integrity.
“It’s going to be corrupt, whether it’s — I would never say this about our mailmen because we love our mailmen — but whether it’s the mailmen or all the many people who touch those ballots,” he said. “They find them in rivers. They find them in streams. They find them all over the place. Many people got many ballots.”
Kari Lake, a Trump ally whose repeated legal challenges of her 2022 loss in Arizona’s governor’s race have been denied by the courts, has also thawed on mail balloting.
“While you know how I feel about mail-in ballots, if this is the game we have to play, if we’ve got to work in their rigged system, we’ll work in their rigged system,” Ms. Lake said in late May.
Ms. Lake had been speaking at a news conference after the dismissal of her latest election lawsuit, which had claimed that Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, had neglected to review voters’ signatures on mail ballots. Now, she said, she would focus on banking mail-in votes as she teases a potential run for the Senate in 2024.
Just days after entering the 2024 presidential race, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Mr. Trump’s chief G.O.P. rival, said Republicans had hurt themselves in 2020 with their assault on absentee voting.
“I think telling people not to send in a mail ballot is a huge mistake, and it ends up reducing the pool of prospective voters,” Mr. DeSantis said during a May 26 radio appearance with the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.
But the mistrust of early voting that Mr. Trump planted still permeates the G.O.P., leaving many holdouts among election deniers, who called the acceptance of mail-in ballots misguided.
“They are 100 percent wrong,” Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder and Trump ally who has been a leading voice in pushing conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election, said in a text message. “Same-day voting!”
Mr. Lindell also renewed calls for elections to be conducted entirely using paper ballots that would be counted by hand, not electronic tabulators.
Since the 2020 election, Republican attacks on mail voting have been unrelenting. Some declared absentee voting as “un-American,” including Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas and a Trump ally, who termed mail-in ballots a “threat to democracy” in a 2020 online commentary.
But in a review prepared by the Republican National Committee after the party’s underwhelming showing in last year’s midterm elections, G.O.P. leaders acknowledged that opposition to voting by mail was a flawed strategy.
Karl Rove, the G.O.P. strategist who has been a target of Mr. Trump’s barbs, said in an interview that the former president’s repeated calls for Republicans to eradicate mail-in and early voting once they gain power were delusional.
“It’s fanciful,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Mr. Rove said that failing to turn out early votes in Arizona and Georgia in 2020 hurt the party’s chances — Mr. Trump lost both states narrowly — and he described the effort to simultaneously embrace and attack mail-in voting as “not helpful” for Republicans.
Even so, Republican state lawmakers and governors have continued to press for legislation that makes it harder to vote by mail, to mixed results.
In Nebraska, a push by two Republican senators to require most people to vote in person stalled this year in the unicameral legislature. In Arkansas, Republicans used their power monopoly this year to ban ballot drop boxes, in a state that does not use them.
Tyler Dees, a G.O.P. state senator who was the bill’s main sponsor, suggested that drop boxes in other states were prone to being vandalized and facilitated illegal ballot harvesting, claims that have been refuted by independent election monitors and studies.
“They act as a beacon of mistrust,” Mr. Dees said of drop boxes during a February floor speech. “They do not encourage a fair and equal process.”
But the party’s pragmatists point to the success Democrats have demonstrated by taking advantage of laws that allow voting for a longer period, rather than just on Election Day.
“We need to treat this more like Lent and less like Halloween,” said Jeff Roe, a longtime G.O.P. strategist who is advising a super PAC supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in his presidential bid and has worked on Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign for Virginia governor, Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid and a lengthy list of other campaigns.
Andy Reilly, a Republican National Committee member from Delaware County, Pa., next to Philadelphia, said the strength of Democrats’ early voting operation was difficult to match.
“You better have a damn good Election Day operation,” he said. “There’s no such thing as Election Day operations now. It’s election season that they have to embrace.”
Mr. Reilly said Republicans had not grasped that unforeseen events can arise on Election Day that keep voters from going to the polls.
“Life gets in the way,” he said, adding that it was a mistake to limit voting to one day. “It is, in essence, suppressing the Republican vote.”