By Nathan Schwartz and Brandon Schwartzberg
As the 2020 presidential election neared, then-President Donald Trump warned all Americans — especially Republicans — about the supposed dangers he saw in early, absentee and mail-in voting.
“As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster,” he said during a September 2020 presidential debate, repeating a fully debunked, utterly untrue argument that such ballots lead to election fraud.
But Trump, who lost the 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden, was right in one way. Mail-in voting was a disaster – for Maryland Republicans in 2022.
In at least five major races in the state, Republican candidates led on Election Night only to see their leads slip away over the next few days as mail-in ballots were counted. Five conservatives lost their leads, too, in nonpartisan races for school board seats in the state.
Given what happened, a growing number of Republicans now say they must embrace mail-in voting to give themselves better odds in future elections.
“I’m not aware of any efforts to help Republicans vote by mail, but on the Democrat side, there were a lot of efforts — and I think we’re seeing that in the results,” said Del. Neil Parrott, a Republican who led in his race for the District 6 U.S. House seat on Election Night only to lose to the incumbent Democrat, Rep. David Trone, when the mail-in votes were counted.
Flipping the results
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, early voting and mail-in ballots have become common ways to cast ballots in recent elections, including in Maryland.
In November’s general election, a little over two million ballots were cast in Maryland, and over 900,000 of those ballots were either cast during early voting, or mailed in, state elections records show.
But in Maryland, the mail-in ballots could not be counted until after Election Day. That’s because in May, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that state lawmakers passed that would have allowed for the counting of mail-in ballots before Election Day. Hogan said the election reform bill that would have allowed the earlier counting of mail-in votes didn’t go far enough to prevent voter fraud.
The requirement that mail-in votes be counted after Election Day, combined with the Democrats’ embrace of mail-in voting, made for some misleading preliminary results on Election Night. For example:
- In the race for Anne Arundel County executive, Republican County Councilwoman Jessica Haire led the incumbent Democrat, Steuart Pittman, by 10,863 votes on Election Night. But once all the mail-in ballots were counted, Pittman was declared the winner — as 42,156 of the 58,504 mail-in votes went the Democrat’s way.
- In the race to represent District 6 as a member in the U.S. House, Parrott led by over 11,000 votes just after Election Day. But Trone ended up winning by 24,524 votes – because the Democratic incumbent received about 33,000 more mail-in votes.
- In the election to represent District 33 in the Maryland State Senate, Republican Del. Sid Saab led Democrat Dawn Gile by 1,636 votes before the counting of mail-in ballots. But Gile received 7,328 more mail-in votes than Saab, meaning the Democrat won by a little more than 6,000 votes.
- In the race for Frederick County executive, Republican State Sen. Michael Hough led Democrat Jessica Fitzwater by just over 11,000 votes just after Election Day. But Fitzwater received 10,868 more mail-in votes than her opponent. Paired with a 1,201-vote advantage in provisional ballots, Fitzwater defeated Hough by just 989 votes.
- In the election to represent District 9A in the Maryland House of Delegates, four candidates competed for two seats. Incumbent Republican Del. Trent Kittleman finished Election Night in the lead. However, a subpar performance for her in mail-in ballots dropped her to third in the race, narrowly missing out on re-election by 113 votes. Her closest opponent, Democrat Chao Wu, received 2,482 more mail-in votes.
Ben Smith, Pittman’s campaign manager, said the election results show how Democrats used mail-in voting to their advantage.
“Ensuring broad turnout was important to us, and vote by mail is an incredible asset in that respect, because it removes a lot of the barriers to participation that a voter might otherwise experience because of issues with transportation, childcare, work or any other responsibility,” Smith said.
How the Democrats utilized mail-in voting
Yvette Lewis, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, said the party “spent a lot of time educating voters on how easy it was to do mail-in voting.”
She said the state Democratic Party sent digital ads to voters encouraging them to vote by mail. Meanwhile, Democratic volunteers called or texted voters and knocked on doors to deliver the message that voting by mail was easy and convenient.
As a result, Democrats “realize the importance, the ease of voting by mail and voting early, because all kinds of unforeseen things can happen on Election Day,” Lewis said.
Individual Democratic campaigns reinforced the message that voting early or voting by mail would be good options.
“We utilized methods of contact like calls, texts, door knocks, digital outreach and mail to ensure voters knew how to vote by mail or in person during Early Vote and Election Day,” said Smith. “For vote by mail, when voters requested ballots, we put a lot of effort into ensuring that they returned their ballots.”
Given how much effort Democrats put into pumping up the mail-in vote, Trone didn’t panic and didn’t concede on Election Night.
“We always knew this race was going to be close,” Trone, who was running in a redrawn district that included more Republicans, told supporters in Frederick as the early Election Night count showed falling behind Parrott by about six percentage points. “The district is different, and it’s going to take a few days for the election officials to finish counting the tens of thousands – and it is tens of thousands – of votes that are still outstanding throughout the district.”
That being the case, Trone, who was bidding for his third term, added: “I’m confident that we are headed back to Congress.”
His confidence was well-founded. Trone pulled into the lead as the mail-in vote was counted, and three days after Election Day, the Associated Press declared him the winner. Trone finished about 10 percentage points ahead of Parrott.
What Republicans are saying now
While Democratic officials made early voting a priority among its voters, the same cannot be said for Republicans. Republicans did not use mail-in voting to their advantage, said Parrott, the losing GOP congressional candidate.
“I think going forward, the Republican Party in Maryland just needs to realize and voters need to realize this is the law,” Parrott said. “This is how elections are gonna be conducted.”
Parrott’s thoughts on mail-in voting for his party reflects those of the head of the Republican National Committee.
“Our voters need to vote early,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told Fox News in early December. “There were many [people] in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early,’ and we have to stop that, and understand that if Democrats are getting ballots in for a month, we can’t expect to get it all done in one day.”
Upset with the close result in her race, Kittleman tied her failed re-election bid to the GOP’s demonization of mail-in voting.
“There may have been a number of people who would have liked to vote but couldn’t get out on Election Day, having been dissuaded from using mail-in voting opportunities,” she said. “I think it was a very bad move on our part.”
That bad move stemmed from what Trump said about mail-in balloting over and over again for more than two years, Kittleman said.
“President Trump, along with other Republicans [that] are urging Republicans not to vote using mail-in ballots, which frankly is really, really stupid,” Kittleman said.
Noting that mail-in voting now appears to be a permanent and major part of every election, she added: “If you don’t take advantage of it, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face.”