PITTSBURGH -- The first thing Allegheny County Republican Chairman Sam DeMarco saw on election night after the polls closed was the more than 100,000 votes from his home county that dropped for Democrat John Fetterman through mail-in ballots. Although he wasn't sure just yet that that meant the race was lost, he also knew Republicans needed to fix something in the party's way of doing things going forward.
"Those initial large dump of voters were mail-in ballots from Democrats," he said of the advance voting that began in 2020 during the pandemic. Democrats embraced it with gusto, but Republicans shied away.
"The biggest takeaway from Tuesday night is that Republican attitudes in regard to mail-in voting needs to change," he continued. "Right now, it's like we're running a 100-yard race against the Democrats and giving them a 45-yard head start. Both parties have limited resources, but while they work during the 50 days of early voting collecting and banking early votes ... we're just collecting promises to show up on Election Day; it's not sustainable, and Democrats get better at it every cycle."
When all the dust is settled, it will be interesting to see what the percentage of mail-in votes for Democrats was in the final count; anything over 40% is a real problem for Republicans going forward if they don't right their mail-in ballot ship.
Before the pandemic, Pennsylvania voters needed a valid excuse to cast an absentee ballot. Act 77, which was signed on Oct. 31, 2019, and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, added no-excuse mail-in voting up to 50 days before an election.
It also changed how these ballots are canvassed, moving from the individual precincts or polls to a central canvassing facility.
In this state, no one really thought it would be a big deal. Most of the people who used absentee balloting were bedridden or traveling out of state on Election Day. Then the pandemic hit.
Although states such as Arizona and Oregon had been voting by mail forever -- and for the most part, they did it quite well -- then-President Donald Trump scoffed at it for his voters. While Democrats encouraged their voters to cast their ballots by mail, Trump discouraged it, warning that it was a vessel for voter fraud. That gave Democrats the advantage.
Republicans in Pennsylvania and also across the country are still reeling from Tuesday's disappointing finish. They say that if this is the new normal for voting going forward, then Republicans need to step up and get their voters to do the same -- otherwise, they will find themselves on the wrong end of big elections going forward.
Currently, Democrats are miles ahead of Republicans at targeting specific races and voters. Through mail balloting, they put those voters in the bank early. This year, they executed and focused and performed; that's why they have probably saved their U.S. Senate majority, based on vote counts as of this writing. It's why they were able to limit Republican gains in the House to maybe just a handful, or maybe none at all.
A lot of pollsters missed this, because Democrats had timed a lot of their advertising to hit right when the early voting began -- especially their messages on abortion. This paid dividends. They banked their voters and created a mirage for analysts who thought the races were closer than they calculated.
Republicans can complain about the current rules all they want, but what they need to do is wake up and start competing with the Democrats where they are. Otherwise, they're just leaving winnable races on the table.
Florida Republicans certainly have figured it out. In 2018 and 2020, the Democrats went into Election Day with more ballots cast than Republicans in early voting. This year, Florida Republicans flipped that on its head. Republicans in other states should take note.