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'It's Partly On Me': GOP Official Says Fraud Warnings Hamper Vote-By-Mail Push

Ohio voters drop off their ballots last month in Dayton. The state's Republican secretary of state has gotten pushback from within his own party for wanting to expand absentee voting during the pandemic.
Megan Jelinger
AFP via Getty Images
Ohio voters drop off their ballots last month in Dayton. The state's Republican secretary of state has gotten pushback from within his own party for wanting to expand absentee voting during the pandemic.

Republican state officials who want to expand absentee and mail-in voting during the pandemic have found themselves in an uncomfortable position due to their party's rhetoric.

President Trump has claimed repeatedly, without providing evidence, that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud and bad for the GOP. He and other Republicans have charged that Democrats might use it to "steal" the election.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams told NPR he got his "head taken off" by some fellow Republicans for his plan to send every registered voter a postcard telling them how they can easily apply for an absentee ballot for the state's June 23 primary.

"The biggest challenge I have right now is making the concept of absentee voting less toxic for Republicans," he said.

Adams said the presumption that absentee voting is less secure is frustrating because Kentucky has safeguards in place to protect against fraud — including requiring people to apply for ballots instead of automatically sending them to everyone on the voter rolls.

But Adams admitted he is partly to blame. Like many Republicans, he ran for office on a platform of fighting voter fraud. His campaign slogan was to "make it easy to vote and hard to cheat."

"It's partly on me because I talked about it in my campaign," Adams acknowledged. "But it's my job now to calm people's fears."

As many experts have said for years, Adams said instances of voter fraud are rare and more likely to be found in small, local races than in a statewide or national election.

"People who think that Donald Trump is going to have the election stolen by mail, it's just absurd," he said.

Adams is not the only Republican secretary of state caught in a similar position while trying to address the concerns of voters and poll workers about the potential health risks of in-person voting. Health officials in Wisconsin report thatnearly 70 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosedin voters and poll workers who took part in the state's April 7 election.

After Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger decided to send absentee ballot applications to 7 million voters for his state's June 9 primary, the state's Republican House speaker, David Ralston, complained in an interview that it could lead to fraud and be "extremely devastating" for the GOP.

In Nevada, conservatives sued Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske over her plan to hold a mostly mail-in primary June 9. They argued that it would lead to fraud and dilute the votes of legitimate voters, a claim that a judge dismissed as unfounded.

Opposition from Louisiana Republicans in the state Legislature forced Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin to scale back his absentee-voting plan.

In Ohio, Secretary of State Frank LaRose faced some pushback from within his party over expanding absentee voting, including for the November election. Ohio held an all-mail primary on April 28.

"Because of the national argument, some people have sort of dug into this 'vote by mail is bad, vote in person is good.' The fact is it's not quite that simple," he said.

LaRose said he's had to explain that mail-in voting in Ohio is secure because of protections such as signature matching and the ability of voters to track their ballots online. He noted that both Democrats and Republicans in the state use absentee voting in almost equal numbers.

In fact, multiple polls have shown that most voters — including Republicans — want to be able to vote by mail, especially during the pandemic.

Despite Trump's comments, GOP officials have been encouraging Republicans to vote absentee in races around the country, in part because they worry that Democrats will be able to use voting by mail to their advantage.

Even Trump tweeted during a recent special congressional election in California that supporters of the Republican candidate should "Mail in ballots, & check that they are counted!"

David Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research, who works closely with state and local election officials, said most election officials want to steer clear of the political crossfire as much as possible.

"They're just kind of quietly trying to do their job and stay above the political fray. I think that's the best strategy for them," Becker said, adding that the officials already have a tough job trying to balance the public's reluctance to vote in person with the complicated logistics of expanded mail-in balloting.

He said officials also have to assure the public that the election is secure. Even though voter fraud is extremely rare, Becker said he fears that all the talk about it could undermine confidence in the results and "be used by the loser in an election to delegitimize the outcome."

Perhaps to cover their bases, some Republican secretaries of state — including in Georgia and West Virginia — have announced they are setting up special task forces this year to monitor mail-in voting for signs of fraud. Kentucky's Adams said he plans to announce such a task force soon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.