For months, the Trump Victory Fund — the joint operation between the President’s campaign and the Republican National Committee — has been coordinating with local party officials to train field operatives and volunteers to spread the word about how to vote by mail. Much of that effort involves combating misinformation that has come directly from the President.
This month CNN got an up-close look at how the party faithful were learning to spread this message in Bucks County, a politically divided suburb of Philadelphia. In a room in the back of the county’s longtime Republican Party headquarters, a group of around twenty volunteers wearing masks and awaiting catered sandwiches listened attentively as the local Trump Victory field operative explained how to use a door-knocking mobile app. A pair of seasoned volunteers reminded their fellow trainees to make a personal connection with every voter. The most important goal was to encourage people to vote however they wanted — including voters who might want to learn more about mail-in voting.
“If that’s the rules that we’re playing by, then great, we’ll play by those rules,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for Trump Victory who attended the Bucks County training session. “The result we need [is] voters to vote, however they vote.”
More harm than good
That has led to suspicion among some Republican-leaning voters of the practice, and caused frustration among administration officials and GOP allies who believe the President’s rhetoric is doing more harm than good.
“It’s not smart,” one senior administration official said of Trump’s comments, noting the likelihood that the pandemic will make voting in-person, at least in some areas, impossible. “When we are eventually forced to have mail-in ballots, it’s our people who won’t vote because they don’t trust the system.”
The size of the problem is evident in the amount of work and money behind the GOP’s mail-in voting push.
Trump Victory boasts it has more than 1,500 paid staff members and a nearly 2-million-person volunteer corps as the central part of its aggressive campaign to both register voters and educate them on voting laws and ballot deadlines in their state. And the RNC’s $350-million voter data investment lets it know just where to unleash that machine, giving it insight into who exactly it needs to be targeting and with what information, even as the system continues to change daily. According to one RNC official, these voters receive constant reminders via phone calls, text messages and email about when they need to return their ballot.
On top of that, the Trump campaign posted a video Wednesday of the President showing his signed Florida primary absentee ballot and encouraging others to “send in your absentee ballots immediately.”
Earlier this month, the campaign launched a bus tour aimed in part at encouraging mail-in voting in several swing states, and features local politicians and well-known surrogates, including members of the President’s own family.
“In Florida you have an honest system, so vote absentee. Your vote will be counted; it’s real,” Eric Trump told his father’s supporters at the launch of the bus tour in the Sunshine State. Florida does not differentiate between absentee voting and vote-by-mail.
One source familiar with the tour says to expect to see more positive messaging and potential explainers on mail-in voting as the tour continues across the country and Republicans seek to counter Trump with knowledge.
Patchwork of state laws
Complicating matters for the Trump Victory team is the patchwork of state laws and rules governing mail-in voting across the country. In some states, every registered voter is automatically sent a ballot, also known as universal mail-in voting, while in others a voter must first request one, which is closer to what is known as absentee voting. Still other states don’t have mail-in ballots per se but have instead expanded access to absentee ballots by not requiring an excuse — effectively making them mail-in voting states.
In total, 43 states offer some form of either no-excuse or universal mail-in voting.
In his criticism of voting by mail, Trump has attempted to draw a distinction, repeatedly questioning how secure the universal or no excuse mail-in voting is, and falsely suggesting that in states such as California, ballots are sent to undocumented immigrants, or that in Nevada or New York, both of which recently expanded mail-in voting, improprieties abound.
Outside of a handful of states where mail-in voting has been long established, universal mail-ini ballots are relatively new or have been rarely used before the pandemic. That includes multiple crucial states for the Trump campaign, like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. The work of parties and campaigns in those places is centered on educating voters who are unfamiliar with these new options.
Rich Leary, the chairman of the Brunswick County Republican Party in North Carolina, told CNN that a lot of his work — at party headquarters as well as at virtual events — involves answering questions from voters about how to apply for and receive absentee ballots.
“This is getting a lot of attention now,” Leary said.
But the President’s constant criticism of mail-in voting is rarely clear or specific.
Republican operatives and activists in states with mail-in voting options have struggled to counter this messaging as they work to educate their voters. One election adviser described distressed conversations with election officials across the country who are receiving calls from voters too anxious over coronavirus to vote in person, and now concerns their vote will be lost.
All that is compounded by the typical Republican aversion to voting by mail.
“Our voters are more traditional,” said Gorka of Trump Victory. “They like to vote at the polls on Election Day.”
Some local party activists dismissed Trump’s claims and trying to combat misinformation about the practice.
“I’ve heard President Trump speak to it, but the devil’s in the details,” said Jim Foreman, the chairman of the Blair County Republican Party in Pennsylvania. Foreman said he tries to emphasize the safeguards against malfeasance in Pennsylvania’s own mail-in voting law when touting it as a reliable choice for the fall.
“When you say mail-in ballot, people conjure up some notion that’s been put in front of them,” he said.
The problem for Republicans is that Trump is often the one conjuring up that notion.
Putting in the work
For the well-funded GOP operation, it’s all about talking to as many voters as possible. According to the RNC official, Trump Victory has already contacted 70 million voters this cycle through a rigorous door knocking campaign still ongoing even during the pandemic. Also the outreach has involved hours of phone banks — double the amount of outreach the RNC did in 2016.
And when it comes to mail in voting specifically, the RNC has hosted dozens of “Trump Victory Leadership Initiative Trainings” both virtually and in person to “educate and train voters on various voting methods and state laws” — including mail-in and absentee.
At one recent Trump Victory training in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, volunteers were taught how to use a door-knocking mobile app to send critical voter information back to the RNC’s database. In Pennsylvania, that information includes whether a voter intends or has interest in using a mail-in ballot. Since the state passed a law in 2019, registered voters can request a mail-in ballot.
Under Covid-19, Pennsylvania voters have taken advantage of the process. More than 1.2 million mail-in ballots and 1.3 million absentee ballots were cast in Pennsylvania’s June primary elections. That’s more than 30 times the number of absentee ballots cast in the state’s 2016 primary elections.
Brittney Robinson, the state director for Trump Victory in Pennsylvania, told CNN that informing voters about this option is a key part of their get-out-the-vote effort.
“It used to be that we would only see about five to six percent of voters in Pennsylvania vote by absentee ballot. It’s less restrictive now, so we want to make sure we’re taking advantage of that,” said Robinson, who opened the training session and oversees more than 120 paid Trump Victory staffers in Pennsylvania — all of whom are working with local party chairs, activists, and volunteers to spread the word about mail-in voting.
Kelly Bellerby-Allen, a candidate for state representative from Croydon who attended the training in Doylestown, told CNN that most Republican voters she talks with are looking forward to voting in person but that because of COVID she’s encouraging elderly voters to consider mailing in their ballots. Bellerby-Allen tells friends the same thing, especially those who work all day and may not have time to vote in person.
“I tell them, ‘Get that mail-in ballot,'” she said.