ATLANTA (AP) – Republican activists who believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump have drawn up a plan they say will prevent cheating in this year’s midterm elections.
The strategy: Vote in person on Election Day or — for voters who receive a ballot by mail — hold on to it and drop it off at a polling place or election office on November 8.
The plan is based on unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that fraudsters will manipulate voting systems to rig results for Democrats once they see how many Republican votes have been returned early. There has been no evidence of such widespread fraud.
If enough voters are deterred from voting early, it could lead to long lines on Election Day and will push back the processing of late-arriving postal ballots. Those ballots likely won’t be counted until the next day or later.
“It just slows everything down,” said Noah Praetz, the former Cook County, Illinois, election secretary who now advises local elections offices on best practices and security. “In many places, if you don’t get mail ballots in hand before election day, you don’t count them until after election day.”
There is no evidence of widespread fraud, cheating or tampering with voting machines in the 2020 election. Exhaustive reviews in the states Trump contested upheld Democrat Joe Biden’s victory, and legal challenges pursued by the former president and his allies were rejected by several judges , including those appointed by Republicans.
That hasn’t stopped conspiracy theories that have proliferated over the past two years, fueled by Trump, allies including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and a slew of Republican candidates seeking office this year. Calls to hold onto ballots until the last minute have grown stronger in recent weeks, according to a review of social media accounts by The Associated Press.
“It’s much easier to catch any fraud,” Lindell, who has promoted the last-minute voting strategy on podcasts, told the AP in a recent interview. Lindell has tried through various events to prove that voting machines were rigged to favor Biden in 2020.
Trump has also weighed in, saying at a recent rally that it was best to vote on Election Day because “it’s a lot harder for them to cheat that way.”
The strategy push by conservatives comes after the use of postal ballots surged during the 2020 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The end of pandemic restrictions, Trump’s attack on mail-in ballots and new voting restrictions in some Republican-led states have led to a decline in the use of mail-in ballots this year, but it remains a popular option for many voters.
Experts say a flurry of last-minute ballots could end up creating delays that could be used by a bad actor to undermine confidence in the election.
“It’s an opening for people to start questioning and instilling mistrust and mistrust,” said Chris Piper, former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections.
Discouraging early voting and encouraging voters to hold on to their mail-in ballots until Election Day runs counter to the efforts of most campaigns. Both Republican and Democratic candidates typically want to have as many ballots in hand as possible heading into Election Day so they can focus their efforts on getting stragglers to the polls and persuading undecided voters.
The duels have resulted in a confusing array of messages for Republican voters.
In Georgia, a recent online leaflet from a grassroots group read: “Voting in person and on Election Day is the only way to overwhelm the system.” A conservative group in the state, VoterGA, told its members to “protect” their votes by applying for an absentee ballot early and waiting to deliver it until Election Day.
State Republican Party Chairman David Shafer recently tweeted on the party’s official account: “Voting in person early is just as safe as voting in person on Election Day!”
The crossover message also hits Republican voters in Arizona, which has high-stakes races this year for the U.S. Senate, governor and secretary of state. There, postal voting has been popular with voters from both parties for years.
State Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Republican who supported a partisan review of 2020 ballots in Maricopa County, told One America News Network viewers earlier this month that “we have to vote on the last day, the day of Election Day, so they don’t know how much I have to cheat.”
But her party’s top candidates — who have also made false claims about the 2020 election — have recently sought to counter that strategy.
“If you have a mail-in ballot, I think you should send it. I want people to vote,” Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor, told reporters this month. “And vote, whichever way you want to vote, but vote.”
Lake has been among those calling for a rollback of postal ballots and early voting, preferring instead a single day of in-person voting. Blake Masters, the Arizona Republican Senate candidate who also has Trump’s support, said it’s fine to vote by mail if that’s what a voter prefers.
“I want to know the results on election night,” Masters told reporters earlier this month. “I tell people to vote in person if you can. If not, vote early and get back by mail. And let us know the result.”
It’s unclear whether the message to Republicans to hold on to their mail-in ballots is having an effect. In two politically important states, the return of mailed-in ballots is slower than in previous elections — though that could also mean voters there remain undecided.
In Georgia, about 23% of mailed ballots have been returned with just over two weeks before Election Day, compared to about 35% at about the same time in 2020 and nearly 37% in 2018. As of As of October 19 in Wisconsin, 45% of mailed ballots had been returned, compared to 56% at the same time in 2020 and 2018.
Some Democrats have also advocated submitting last-minute ballots — but based more on political strategy than allegations of fraud.
Pam Keith, a lawyer, Democratic activist and former congressional candidate in Florida, said she believes the predictability of Democrats voting by mail gives Republicans an early hint about turnout. That’s why she’s advocating a wave of last-minute ballots that trap Republicans.
“By voting early, we’re showing our hand,” Keith said. “We show what our turnout will be. And if they know that the overwhelming majority of postal ballots are in, then they know what they have to do to win.”
Keith’s advice differed from that of many Democratic candidates, who have urged their supporters to vote early and by mail.
Swenson reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the election at: https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors surrounding the 2022 midterm elections.