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The GOP needs more of its voters to cast ballots early. What's the problem?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As Republicans move through their primary calendar, party officials now say they need more of their voters to cast ballots before Election Day, including by mail. But the party needs its supporters to overcome a stigma created by Republicans. NPR's Ashley Lopez reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: When Madison Gesiotto Gilbert ran for Congress in 2022, she ran in a pretty competitive district in Ohio. Gilbert says she thought she had some good odds, but she lost. And she has a theory about why.

MADISON GESIOTTO GILBERT: We got killed on the early vote. And this is something that I think - across the country, there's been a stigma within the Republican Party about voting early.

LOPEZ: Gilbert, who is now a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, says too many GOP voters that year waited to vote in person on Election Day. That's even voters who live in states with weeks of in-person early voting and mail voting.

GESIOTTO GILBERT: I personally am not the biggest fan of early voting of election season, as we call it now. But the reality is it's here, and in a lot of places, it may be here to stay. So until things change in the states, prospectively, we have to be playing the same game that the Democrats are playing in order to win.

LOPEZ: Starting this past summer, the RNC launched a campaign called Bank Your Vote. The point is to get Republicans to overlook discomfort with in-person early voting and mail voting. And they're relying on Republican candidates to spread the message, and that includes former President Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Go to bankyourvote.com to sign up and commit to voting early.

LOPEZ: Despite endorsing Bank Your Vote, on the trail, Trump has continued to cast doubt on the legitimacy and security of mail voting. In particular, Aaron Scherb with Common Cause says this is a huge hurdle for the RNC. He says Republicans across the country have been maligning mail voting since 2020. He says it's going to be hard for them to convince their voters to get over a distrust they created.

AARON SCHERB: So getting voters to, like, unlearned or unhear those messages is tough to undo that damage. And so I think that's what this Bank the Vote (ph) program is trying to essentially do. It's somewhat analogous to getting a jury to unhear extremely damaging information that's presented against the defendant.

LOPEZ: Another hurdle is that skepticism around some voting issues runs really deep among Republican voters, says Charles Stewart at MIT.

CHARLES STEWART: And Republicans have always been much more likely to believe that fraud was a problem, that it occurred, and much more likely to believe it's important to secure the election than it is to pass laws to expand participation.

LOPEZ: Despite that, GOP officials say they need to counteract some of that skepticism if they want to win elections and save money.

GESIOTTO GILBERT: If they get out early, we're not going to spend as much money on them.

LOPEZ: That's Madison Gilbert again with the RNC.

GESIOTTO GILBERT: So it may be around $5 - right? - that we spend on that voter if they get out early. However, if we keep having to chase them, if we keep having to phone them, to mail them, to reach them to try to get them out to vote, we're continuing to spend money over and over and over on the same voter.

LOPEZ: Gilbert says if more of their core voters cast their votes early, they could use their resources on less reliable voters. Charles Stewart at MIT says some Republican voters might respond to the argument that this will help them beat Democrats.

STEWART: But there's going to be another set of voters who are going to say, well, you're asking me to do something that I already feel uncomfortable doing for all these other reasons. And I know for a fact that I'm going to show up to vote in person to vote. So what's in it for me?

LOPEZ: Stewart says it's also worth noting that messages about voter fraud and mail voting are also coming from grassroot organizations that are making millions of dollars selling the story of voter fraud. Stewart says counteracting those messages might be one of the tougher hurdles for the RNC to clear. Ashley Lopez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASEGO SONG, "YOU NEVER VISIT ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.
Christine Arrasmith