Just days before Pennsylvania’s 2023 municipal election this month, Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Tabas struck a confident tone on mail-in ballots.
“We looked at all the different methods that were being used for voting by mail and how to promote it. And then we unveiled our campaign and I met with the counties and we’ve met with each one individually and we’ve been working very closely with them. And it’s been, as I said, it’s gone far better than I had expected,” Tabas told Battleground Politics reporter Lauren Mayk.
“Our numbers are much better than they were in ‘21 in a municipal year, and our numbers are probably going to maybe exceed ‘22 as well, which is a general election year with a higher turnout,” Tabas also said.
Whatever Tabas’s expectations were, the 2023 election results plainly showed that Republicans in the Commonwealth are still so far behind Democrats in using mail-in ballots that catching up may take years.
A spreadsheet from the Department of State shows that by election day 2022, Democrats returned 718,744 mail-in ballots, compared to 178,609 for Republicans, exactly four times as many.
In 2023, Democrats returned 550,456 mail-in ballots, compared to 142,921 for Republicans — 3.8 times as many.
Whether Tabas and the state party’s “task force” were up to the challenge of radically altering Republicans’ adoption of mail-in voting is debatable, but what is certain is that Tabas knows that utilizing the new voting method is not a theoretical exercise, it’s existential.
“There are a lot of people who can’t get to the polls either because of maybe health or weather or job or family duties. This is a great way in order to be able to vote and participate in the process. We have a lot of people who have not been voting for a while who find this to be very convenient and supportive of this effort that we’re making here,” he told Mayk.
A request for comment to the state GOP seeking details on its “Bank the Vote” task force was not returned.
Voting by mail wasn’t an option for Pennsylvanians until the General Assembly passed Act 77 in 2019, ushering in some of the largest changes to voting the commonwealth has seen in generations.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the expanded use of “no excuse absentee voting” quickly became a de facto full fledged vote-by-mail system, as both parties sought to win a turnout war while hundreds of thousands of voters still had concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in public places — like local voting locations.
Grassroots Republicans have largely lashed out at their own party’s elected officials who passed Act 77.
But rarely discussed is that the Trump White House and the Republican National Committee were urging passage of the bill for strategic reasons of their own.
“In the communications that were taking place between our leadership and the White House and the RNC, the brass ring for them, in their opinion, was getting straight-party voting eliminated,” state Representative Jim Gregory (Blair County) said in 2021.
“In states that had, had [straight-ticket voting] previously and got rid of it, you saw an opportunity for President Trump to be re-elected by a range of four to eight percent. They did not concern themselves with mail-in balloting, and they were fine with that, in the communications that I’ve been told,” Gregory added.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, President Trump pilloried voting by mail.
“Mail ballots, they cheat,” Trump said at the White House in September 2020. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters. They go collect them. They are fraudulent in many cases. They have to vote. They should have voter ID, by the way.”
Most political strategists and observers still credit Republicans’ reluctance to use mail voting to Trump’s continual disparagement in 2020, although he has since shown a change of heart — somewhat.
“In December [of 2022], Mr. Trump told Breitbart News that the GOP has no choice but to ‘live with the system that stinks,’ while maintaining ‘a mail-in ballot will always be corrupt’ and that Republicans should seek to change laws,” a Wall Street Journal report from March noted.
And Pennsylvania’s Republican leadership seems to be of a similar mind.
At a statewide February meeting in Hershey, Republicans adopted two measures related to Act 77, and mail-in voting.
“The first says the party will encourage more of its members to avail themselves of the mail-in voting Act 77 created in order to be more competitive,” Broad + Liberty previously reported. “The second measure affirms the party will try to undo the law when it has the necessary levers of power in state government — circumstances that couldn’t even possibly materialize for another four years.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports