Republican candidates were outmaneuvered by their Democratic opponents this fall as the hoped-for “red wave” failed to materialize. The reasons for a politically disastrous election for Republicans are obvious in hindsight. Former President Donald Trump certainly did his best to make the election about him rather than the failed presidency of his successor, so that independents expected to break heavily for Republicans were reluctant to do so. Then weak or inexperienced mistake-prone and money-starved Republican candidates in several battleground states proved that candidate quality matters.
All of this is true, but it tells only part of the story. In state after state, Democrats and their progressive activist allies did a better job identifying and delivering their vote on and before Nov. 8. Like it or not, early mail-in voting combined with newly legal ballot harvesting has changed the modern campaigns. Democrats recognized and took full advantage of this, while Republicans campaigned as if they were living in the past.
After the Bush-Gore election in 2000, former Secretary of State Jim Baker, a Republican, and former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, were named to head a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform in recognition of the fact that public faith in the honesty of elections is key to the survival of a democratic system. The commission’s report, issued in 2005, included dozens of recommendations, but the most important were the call for universal voter identification, the demands that ballot harvesting be halted and voter lists cleaned up, and a warning that mail-in ballots represent the “largest source of potential vote fraud.”
Since then, measures to require voter identification have been attacked in the courts and the media as racist, few states have cleaned up their voter rolls, and both mail voting and ballot harvesting are more widespread than ever. Public confidence in the elections has collapsed. In Pennsylvania’s recent Senate election, roughly half of the votes were cast by mail weeks before Election Day and before the debate. Coast to coast, money and volunteers were deployed to “harvest” and deliver votes by some campaigns.
Republicans have tended to be hostile to the concept of early or mail-in voting except under traditional circumstances that would prevent an eligible voter from voting in person on Election Day. They believe elections should be decided on Election Day rather than during some earlier and expanding election season. They were quick to recognize the dangers of expanded mail-in voting and saw the very concept of ballot harvesting as an illegitimate procedure used by their opponents to game the system for their own benefit. These valid objections echo the concerns of the Carter-Baker Commission, and countries across the world have reversed their mail-in ballot laws when fraud ensued.
But what many Republicans see as a principled refusal to engage in such activities has put them at a real disadvantage. Some candidates in states like California and New York have implemented efforts to battle the Democrats on their own ground by harvesting GOP ballots and getting their voters out early. Shawn Steel, a former California GOP chairman, has argued for years that a failure to utilize the same procedures being used by Democrats will doom the party to failure. Mr. Steel’s wife, California Rep. Michelle Steel, won a second term on Nov. 8 in part because she followed Mr. Steel’s advice. She deployed volunteers early to identify and collect ballots from friendly voters. Purists may not have liked doing it, but they did, and it worked.
Some years ago, a Republican senator barely survived a runoff primary when his supporters recruited, and some say even paid, Democrats to cross over in an open primary to vote for him. During the controversy that followed, I told then-Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus that I oppose open primaries on principle because I believe each party should nominate the candidate its members want. Mr. Priebus agreed and asked for my support if he were to oppose open primaries. Nothing came of it.
Months later, though, my fellow Wisconsinite asked if I didn’t find it inconsistent to have “made a hundred thousand robocalls to Republicans in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin urging them to cross over to support your friend Sheriff David Clark” in that year’s open Democratic primary. I told him I was consistent because although I oppose open primaries, “the rules are the rules.”
Mr. Steel and others are urging Republicans to realize that in today’s world, they should play the game by the rules that exist rather than those they wish prevailed. If our Republican legislatures can create fair, safe elections, let’s do so. But in states where kooky, unfair rules persist, let’s adapt. In politics, “the rules are the rules.”
• David Keene is editor-at-large at The Washington Times.