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Conservatives are growing worried that President Trump's attacks on mail-in voting could suppress the GOP vote as Democrats mobilize to take advantage of expanded voting opportunities while suspicious Republicans gamble on in-person turnout during a pandemic.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: GOP fears Trump attacks on mail-in vote will sabotage turnout © The Hill GOP fears Trump attacks on mail-in vote will sabotage turnout

Scores of states have moved to expand absentee balloting amid the coronavirus outbreak to cut down on crowds and lines, hastening a recent trend toward mail-in voting, which has grown more common and more popular in recent years.

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Trump has resisted the move, saying Democrats have an advantage in high-turnout elections and making unsubstantiated claims about widespread fraud in mail-in voting, including on Thursday when he raised the idea of delaying the election "until people can properly, securely and safely vote."

Polls show that Trump's attacks have undermined GOP confidence in mail-in voting, which otherwise has overwhelming support among Democrats and independents.

Some Republicans are urging GOP leaders to abandon the attacks on mail-in voting and to instead embrace it, saying that greater access to absentee ballots is a foregone conclusion this year and warning that the president is effectively sabotaging his own party by refusing to buy into that new reality.

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The impact could be particularly pronounced in Florida, a battleground state where Republicans have traditionally outpaced Democrats among absentee voters. It's also the preferred method of voting for many seniors, who broke for Trump in 2016.

"The fact that you have so-called party leaders parroting Trump's BS on vote by mail is basically putting a knife to their own electoral throats," said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

A Trump campaign aide told The Hill that the campaign is working to maximize turnout by ensuring voters know the rules in their states, whether it's for mail-in voting, absentee voting, early voting or in-person voting on Election Day.

Matthew Morgan, the general counsel for the Trump campaign, drew a distinction between states that allow absentee voting and the five states - Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington - that now conduct their elections entirely by mail.

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"If a voter can't make it to the polls, they can request an absentee ballot - but universal vote by mail opens the door to chaos and fraud," Morgan said. "States should be - and many already are - working to ensure polling locations can be safely open and operating on and before Election Day, and we encourage voters across America to take advantage of both of those in-person options."

Trump's broadsides against mail-in voting have often conflated absentee and universal mail voting or exaggerated the potential for fraud.

The president this week created an uproar in Washington, saying that mail-in voting would lead to "the most inaccurate and fraudulent" election in history when he questioned whether the vote should be delayed.

Trump also claimed that "hundreds of millions" of mail ballots were being sent out across the country, which is not accurate. In most cases, states have merely made it easier to request absentee ballots.

Republican election experts share some of the president's concerns.

Most experts oppose the practice of ballot "harvesting," where political groups collect mail ballots directly from voters and send them in bulk to be counted. The practice is legal only in California.

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And many are concerned that the crush of mail-in voting will be an administrative nightmare that could lead to a weeks-long delay in getting the final results in November. New York state, for example, has yet to complete the count for several primary races that took place on June 23.

"I think concerns about ballot harvesting practices are fair and legitimate," said Chris Ashby, a Republican elections lawyer. "I'm also very concerned about the ability of the postal service to handle the volume of mail ballots, of local election officials to process them timely and transparently, and of partisans and the public to wait patiently while that happens in the days and weeks after Election Day."

But Ashby also said that "the national tide has clearly turned in favor of expanding opportunities to vote."

"National Republicans should stop trying to beat back the tide and start harnessing it," he said. "Experience in Florida, for example, shows that Republicans can win mail ballots. But that's not going to happen if the GOP spends all its time fighting vote by mail and casting doubt on it. In both the short and long terms, all those resources and efforts would be better spent trying to win mail-in votes."

The R Street Institute, a think tank dedicated to free markets and limited government, recently released a study titled "Why conservatives should embrace sensible measures to expand absentee balloting."

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The study cast doubt on claims that Democrats benefit from expanded mail-in voting, pointing to three states Trump carried in 2016 - Utah, Arizona and Montana - where about 70 percent of voters cast ballots through the mail.

The R Street Institute noted that former Republican Sen. Gordon Smith was elected in Oregon after the state moved to an all-mail model. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner was elected in Colorado after the state expanded absentee balloting. This year, Republican Mike Garcia flipped a House seat held by Democrats in California in a mostly mail-in election.

The study found instances of fraud to be almost nonexistent in states that use all-mail balloting. Mail balloting is cheaper, favored by older voters and growing in popularity, the study found.

The authors pointed to GOP governors in Nebraska, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, New Hampshire and Alaska that have recently advocated for its expansion.

"To support expanded voting by mail is an imperative of conservative ideals," the authors wrote. "And, for this reason, it is not surprising that even as pundits and special interests have spent recent months conjuring visions of electoral doom, conservative policymakers with actual governing responsibilities have moved forward with expanding access to absentee ballots."

Mac Stipanovich, a longtime GOP operative in Florida and a key figure in the 2000 recount, said that Democrats have returned 100,000 more absentee ballots than Republicans ahead of next week's state House and Senate primary elections.

"That's very unusual in Florida," Stipanovich said. "Back when I started, Republicans had the advantage by contacting voters and urging them to mail in their absentee ballots. That was always an ace in the hole. Apparently, that's no longer the case, and I think that will harm Republicans."

The latest Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey found that 70 percent of voters support a mail-in option. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents support mail-in voting, but Republicans are split 50-50.

Still, polling director Mark Penn said Trump's warnings about widespread voter fraud could energize his base. He noted that Democrats are similarly warning about GOP voter suppression tactics to energize their supporters.

"The more Republican voters think the election is questionable the more they will turn out, just as Democrats have also used a similar strategy," Penn said. "Both parties are now using the same kind of fear of fair voting messages to stimulate their votes."

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