- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Veteran Republican Party campaign strategist J. Tucker Martin said he cringed as he drove across Virginia this election season and saw the signs urging people to vote on Nov. 3.

“That’s completely out of date now,” Mr. Martin said. “Election Day is the day early voting starts and every day thereafter.”

Just like the Christmas season, which now seems to start after Halloween, the practice of voting has expanded well beyond the first Tuesday in November. Thanks to rules changes in some states this year, it could last well beyond Election Day, too.

In Virginia, the first day of early voting was Sept. 18. To Mr. Martin, that means “today is the 47th Election Day that we had.”

Campaigns have had to adjust.

In the new reality, campaigns have to dip into war chests earlier, move faster on opposition research and rally and re-rally voters for months.

Holding political fire for a last-minute attack or hoping for a surprise accomplishment to swing voters, once conventional wisdom, is now a risk-filled strategy.

“First of all, there will no longer be an ‘October surprise.’ It will be a ‘September surprise,’” said Chris LaCivita, who spearheaded a pro-Trump super PAC, Preserve America, that poured tens of millions of dollars into the effort to defeat Democrat Joseph R. Biden.

“The bottom line is everything is just going to start earlier — the mailings, the rallies, the events, the door-to-door canvassing, the TV ads, the online ads,” he said.

Virginia’s legislature, with a newly minted Democratic majority, adjusted its voting laws before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

But across the country, the pandemic sent those kinds of efforts into overdrive. States scrambled to adopt all-mail elections, expand timetables for in-person voting, and rewrite rules on witnesses and signatures.

Before the first polls opened Tuesday, more than 100 million people nationwide had already cast ballots: nearly 36 million in person and 64 million by mail, according to a tally from the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.

In Texas and Hawaii, the number of early voters topped the entire turnout for 2016.

Florida, Georgia and other states were nearing that mark.

Michael McDonald, who runs the Elections Project, predicted that 150 million ballots could be cast this year.

That would be roughly 65% of eligible voters and would be the highest turnout since 1908 — the year William Howard Taft was elected president.

“This is a sea change that will be impossible to turn back in future years,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “People like the convenience of mail and early voting and will want to see it continue.”

Not everyone welcomes the change.

President Trump predicted massive fraud with the level of voting by mail.

His campaign team waged legal battles against states that sought more time to count and collect ballots. They lost most of those fights, though another round of lawsuits could emerge as ballots begin to be counted.

Election experts say the chance of fraud swinging the presidential election are slim to nonexistent but looser voting rules could change results in smaller elections.

Prosecutors in Texas this summer brought charges against a city commissioner who they say used mail-in ballots to steal a primary in 2018.

Watching for that kind of mischief will now be an election-season occupation rather than a one-day obsession.

“Whereas coronavirus sped up the acceleration of mass voting by mail, that is also going to speed up the process to guard the integrity of the ballot system,” Mr. LaCivita said.

He said he expects Republican-controlled state legislatures to revisit voter ID requirements, signature-matching requirements and other fraud-prevention measures.

Democrats, meanwhile, will likely try to expand ballot collection, in which a third party takes mail-in ballots from voters and submits on their behalf.

Critics, who call the process “ballot harvesting,” say the practice is shady and ripe for tampering.

Mr. Martin said well-organized campaigns will have opportunities to be more thorough.

“The process now is not a one-day process anymore. It is a six-week process,” he said. “In a sense, it gives you more time to turn your voters out. If you’ve planned for it. It has become a more thoughtful process.”

It also means settling on a winning campaign message earlier.

“Once people start voting, then the number of voters you can affect diminishes from that point and doesn’t stop,” Mr. Martin said.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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