Orange County and state GOP leaders spent an hour during a recent virtual “Election Integrity” roundtable talking up voting — debunking myths about voter fraud and encouraging local Republicans to take advantage of mail-in voting and to cast their ballots early in 2022.
“We lose elections by self suppression,” Fred Whitaker, chair of the Republican Party of Orange County, told his virtual audience. “By believing that our vote doesn’t count, by believing that somehow the system is rigged, or just by believing we’re going to lose anyway, we don’t get out to vote.”
But as soon as party leaders opened the discussion up to questions from the public, they heard from an upset GOP voter identified as Nick, who couldn’t believe what he was hearing. GOP leaders were promoting mail-in ballots that he insisted could just be thrown “in the shredder.”
“I’m actually more pissed now than I was,” Nick said. “I kinda regret joining this meeting, because it doesn’t sound like we’re fighting tooth and nail.”
The incident illustrates the tough corner the GOP has backed itself into, and the needle the party wants to thread as it tries to win in purple counties like Orange County.
While there is zero evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have affected the outcome of the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump and many other top Republican figures continue to promote the false claim that the presidency was stolen due to flaws and corruption in the voting system.
Any GOP leader who tries to counter that narrative risks drawing the ire of a significant faction of their voting base — or even Trump himself. But failure to counter it poses its own risk: that a segment of Republican voters simply will not participate in an election system they’ve been told not to trust.
Local GOP officials are trying to split the difference, telling their voters to trust local elections (in which their party has performed fairly well) while still entertaining doubts about Trump’s loss.
But interactions like the one between local GOP leader Whitaker and the GOP viewer named Nick suggest at least some local Republicans aren’t buying it.
“They’re a victim of their own lies,” said Mike Madrid, a former political director for the California GOP who split with the party over Trump.
“It’s going to hurt the Republican party. The question is how much?”
Depressed turnout possible
Less than a third (32%) of all Republicans and of others who supported Trump said they were confident that votes were counted accurately in 2020, according to a new poll from the Center for Election Innovation & Research, while only 38% said they have confidence that 2022 votes will be accurately tallied.
And one out of every six Republican voters told surveyors they’re less likely to vote in the midterms unless “forensic audits” — which election security experts and even many GOP leaders deem unnecessary and problematic — are conducted across the country.
“This poll confirms that the campaign to discredit elections has grievously injured Republican voter confidence,” said David Becker, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Election Innovation & Research.
“The evidence suggests that election denial could have a long-term negative effect on turnout, particularly among Republicans and Trump voters.”
It’s tough to estimate how many Republicans in Orange County might sit out the 2022 elections over distrust in the election system, according to Adam Probolsky, a veteran consultant out of Newport Beach.
“I don’t really think it’s having some huge dampening effect on turnout. I think it’s some small number,” Probolsky said, noting local turnout hit a record high in 2020 and was strong again during the gubernatorial recall in September.
“But that could still sway things,” he added.
If just 5% of registered GOP voters stay home next year, that’s more than 30,000 people — larger than the margin that decided nearly every state and federal win in Orange County in 2020. Even if it’s just a half a percent, that’s more than 3,000 people — enough to tip many local elections, where city council races often are decided by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Counteracting the narrative
Whitaker and other local GOP leaders clearly recognize the problem, with multiple meetings lately focused on election integrity.
During the Oct. 26 roundtable, Whitaker said he would like to see tighter rules around things like voter ID, voter roll cleanup and ballot harvesting. In the meantime, he said Republicans are doing their “own form of ballot harvesting,” while GOP attorney Harmeet Dhillon said “aggressive” ballot harvesting was key to Republicans securing victories last year for Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita.
But Whitaker debunked claims about a spike in turnout indicating something malicious at play, or that routine typos or computer glitches are signs of widespread fraud.
Panelist Garret Fahy, an Irvine-based attorney who serves as the Orange County chair of the Republican National Lawyers Association, explained that big claims about issues with voting machines also have been debunked. And he said he has no concerns about the voting technology in use in Orange County.
“We should not be psyching ourselves out and causing our own voter suppression like we did with the well-meaning efforts of election integrity activists,” Dhillon said.
Fahy praised the security of local elections and said he would not like to see an Arizona-style forensic audit in California because that involves handing ballots over to a private entity. Fahy said he wouldn’t want Democrats to be able to hand ballots over to a private auditor “and neither would you.”
Instead, Fahy said local Republicans should focus on voting “early by voting by mail.”
“I feel a little bit bad for the party leadership because they have to deal with the crazies that are pushing back on this,” said Probolsky, who was a GOP activist for three decades until he left the party during the Trump years and now is registered as No Party Preference.
“They know for a fact that absentee ballots and vote by mail is the great advantage Republicans had over the last 30 years. And in a matter of weeks their own president undid all of that.”
When he was working as a GOP consultant, Madrid said the party spent millions of dollars over 20 years trying to get Republicans to vote by mail because they saw that it worked.
“There was never an issue raised for two decades until Trump refused to admit he lost.”
For years in Orange County, Republicans tended to vote early by mail in larger numbers than Democrats did. That put them at an advantage in initial vote counts, and it meant they didn’t have to overcome the barrier of getting people to show up to polls and wait in line to vote.
But after Trump cast doubts on the mail voting system, the patterns flipped. Starting in the 2020 elections, and even more so in the governor recall race in September, Democrats mailed their ballots in early while a segment of Republicans voted in person on Election Day. That means those Republicans now face long lines, which could discourage participation.
“That’s the Pandora’s box they opened,” said Graeme Boushey, a political science professor at UC Irvine. “Older, more affluent voters, who are more common in Orange County, are more likely to participate by mail. But then Republicans aggressively delegitimized the form of participation that was an advantage to their constituents.”
Now Madrid said they’re going to have to spend lots of time and money trying to unwind that narrative — time and money that they could have spent supporting candidates in the midterm elections.
It doesn’t help from a voter confidence perspective that Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley, a Republican who is widely respected on both sides of the aisle, is retiring before the 2020 primaries.
Still, there’s a larger national dynamic at play that might help Republicans overcome these issues in 2022, Madrid said, with the minority party typically performing better during midterms and issues like inflation potentially posing serious problems for Democrats.
But Probolsky said he doesn’t see the problem created by Republican distrust in the election system going away anytime soon, since it’s impossible to prove a negative, while Trump is still promoting false conspiracy theories.
“You’ve got to somehow overcome that national narrative. And there’s just no way of doing that.”