Until 2020, both the Democratic and Republican party organizations and candidate campaigns encouraged their supporters to take advantage of voting by mail where possible. To win elections, it makes sense to get as many votes banked for your side as early as possible and then to retrain attention and resources toward those who have yet to cast a ballot. The alternative is to use only the precious hours when polls are open on Election Day to get out the vote—especially in my home state of Pennsylvania, one of the few states that don’t allow early in-person voting.
Could our most recent election results have favored Democrats over Republicans so heavily because only one party has embraced all the available legal voting methods?
As president and CEO of Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan Pennsylvania-based nonprofit with bipartisan support, one of my primary objectives is to support and facilitate secure and accessible elections. We want every eligible voter to vote, be informed when they vote, and vote confidently—whether at the polls or by mail.
Thirty-five states now allow any voter to request a mail-in ballot, and eight have evolved to all-mail voting, in which every registered voter is mailed a ballot. Of the estimated 111 million Americans who voted in these past midterms, 25 million of various political affiliations cast mail-in ballots, according to the U.S. Election Project.
The novelty is the yawning gap between Democratic and Republican voters in their likelihood to vote by mail since 2020. The primary driver is clear enough: former President Donald Trump and his allies decided to make the mail-in ballot a scapegoat for losing the presidency. (As a reminder: Republican candidates did exceptionally well elsewhere on that year’s ballot — just not at the top.) There’s no other explanation for Republicans suddenly abandoning a mode of voting they relied on for so many years. In these most recent Pennsylvania midterms, in which a U.S. Senate seat flipped from red to blue and Democrats flipped 12 seats to reclaim control of the state House for the first time since 2010, only one-fifth of mail-in ballots cast were by Republicans.
The Philadelphia GOP, which I led as executive director from 2007 to 2009, and the PA GOP, for which I served as a Senior Advisor in 2010, had consistently urged city voters to use mail-in ballots, as have other pockets of the party around the country. But the dominant partisan narrative — that mail-in voting is a source of fraud and can’t be relied upon — has cut hard in the opposite direction and, paradoxically, could have been the most suppressive factor in voter participation in these historic midterms. It’d be prudent for Republican leaders, operatives, and activists to rethink the party line on voting by mail.
With new legislative sessions starting around the country next year, there’s an opportunity to reset the debate on election reform. For leaders and elected officials of both major parties to embrace voting by mail will give us our best chance yet to improve our election laws to maintain voter access while preserving election integrity. Partisans should have every interest in doing this. But it’d also be good for voters, not to mention our democracy.
Let’s make mail-in voting bipartisan again.
Al Schmidt is the President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy and a former Republican City Commissioner in Philadelphia.