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Trump says mail ballots are terrible. But Florida GOP relies on them.

In Florida — where Trump claimed full-time residence last fall and voted by mail in last months’ Republican presidential primary — Republicans didn’t just write the book on mail voting turnout, they also wrote the laws.
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, in Washington. [ ALEX BRANDON | AP ]
Published Apr. 8, 2020
Updated Apr. 8, 2020

President Donald Trump, despite being among the more than 2 million mail voters in Florida, launched an attack on the voting method this week. But in his adopted home state, mail ballots have been a boon to both parties, and the GOP won’t stop pushing them anytime soon.

Trump this week dismissed mail voting as “a terrible thing” that is rife with fraud, and told voters that if they want to vote, they should do it at the polls. On Wednesday, he urged Republicans to resist calls to end in-person voting and conduct elections entirely by mail in order to avoid the potential spread of coronavirus.

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it,” Trump tweeted. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

But in Florida — where Trump claimed full-time residence last fall and voted by mail in last months’ Republican presidential primary — Republicans didn’t just write the book on mail voting turnout, they also wrote the laws. Republicans were in power in 2002 when the state moved to allow any voter to request a mail ballot without supplying a reason.

Since then, mail voting has grown in popularity, and now account for about a third of the vote cast in statewide elections. That share increased in the March 17 presidential preference primary, reaching around 50 percent as Election Day voting fell during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Democrats cast more than 694,000 mail ballots in the March primary, about 12,000 more than were cast by Republicans. But in 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida, Republicans cast more than 1.1 million mail ballots, about 60,000 more than were cast by Democrats.

Elections officials expect mail voting to continue to increase this year before the Aug. 18 primary and Nov. 3 general election as both Republicans and Democrats encourage voters to request mail ballots, regardless of the president’s position. Some election supervisors are promoting the method themselves.

“As we do every election cycle, the Florida GOP will push [vote-by-mail] requests and returns among Republicans,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters said Wednesday in a statement.

But while Gruters — a Trump loyalist — sided with the president against the concept of sending a mail ballot to every voter in the state, his counterpart in the Florida Democratic Party called on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis Wednesday to send a mail ballot to every registered voter in Florida in order to ease fears about spreading coronavirus during the state’s August primary and November general elections.

“Unprecedented times call for great measures to protect our democracy,” said Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, who still supports Election Day precincts. “We still believe that statewide vote-by-mail is achievable, and the best way to ensure the principles of our democracy are upheld.”

Currently, voters can request ballots be sent to them on their county supervisor’s website, by calling the supervisor’s office or by filling out and mailing a form.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the governor’s position on statewide mail voting, or about whether he would issue an executive order relaxing some early voting and election day laws, as the state’s election supervisors requested in a letter sent Tuesday.

Gruters, in his statement, noted that the supervisors themselves told DeSantis that “the state is not in a position at this time to conduct an all-mail election this year.” He also noted that states that already hold all-mail elections typically require days or weeks to report the results of elections — and that could create a problem in Florida because the state has constitutional deadlines for swearing in newly elected state lawmakers.

As for the fraud alleged by Trump, Florida has dealt with allegations of mass ballot tampering, including so-called boleteras known for collecting mail ballots in Miami-Dade County and delivering them for candidates. And a North Carolina congressional election was nullified last year after a Republican incumbent’s campaign was found to have engaged in mail ballot shenanigans.

But while experts agree that mail ballots are more prone to fraud than Election Day voting, there’s little evidence to prove, as Trump suggested Tuesday, that there are “thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room signing ballots all over the place.” If anything, mail voters are more likely to have their ballots rejected due to mismatched or missing signatures, the primary means by which mail ballots are authenticated.

Florida Republicans who spoke to the Miami Herald Wednesday said they understood Trump’s point about problems with mail voting, and agreed that laws could be stronger. But they didn’t think his criticisms would lead to a dip in GOP mail ballots, regardless of what happens with the coronavirus outbreak.

“If someone’s afraid of getting coronavirus by going to a precinct, I think they’re going to vote by mail,” said Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County. “Or they’re not going to vote at all.”

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