GOP voters are being told to hang onto their mail-in ballots until Election Day.
Ballot boxes are lined up Wednesday as employees test voting equipment at the Miami-Dade County Elections Department in Miami in advance of Election Day. Credit: Lynne Sladky / AP

ATLANTA — Republican activists who believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump have crafted a plan that, in their telling, will thwart cheating in this year’s midterm elections.

The strategy: Vote in person on Election Day or — for voters who receive a mailed ballot — hold onto it and hand it in at a polling place or election office on Nov. 8.

The plan is based on unfounded conspiracy theories that fraudsters will manipulate voting systems to rig results for Democrats once they have seen how many Republican votes have been returned early. There has been no evidence of any such widespread fraud.

If enough voters are dissuaded from casting ballots early, it could lead to long lines on Election Day and would push back processing of those late-arriving mailed ballots. Those ballots likely would not get counted until the next day or later.

“It just slows everything down,” said Noah Praetz, the former election clerk in Cook County, Illinois, who now advises local election offices on best practices and security. “In many places, if you don’t get mail ballots in hand until Election Day, you are not counting them until after Election Day.”

There is no evidence of widespread fraud, cheating or manipulation of voting machines in the 2020 election. Exhaustive reviews in the states disputed by Trump upheld Democrat Joe Biden’s win, and legal challenges pursued by the former president and his allies were rejected by numerous judges, including ones appointed by Republicans.

That hasn’t stopped conspiracy theories that have spread over the last two years, fueled by Trump, allies including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and a crop of Republican candidates seeking office this year. The calls to hold onto ballots until the last minute have grown louder in recent weeks, according to a review of social media accounts by The Associated Press.

“It’s a lot easier to catch any fraud,” Lindell, who has promoted the last-minute voting strategy on podcasts, told the AP in a recent interview. Lindell, through various events, has sought to prove that voting machines were manipulated to favor Biden in 2020.

Trump also has weighed in, saying at a recent rally that voting on Election Day was best because “it’s much harder for them to cheat that way.”

The strategy push by conservatives comes after the use of mailed ballots soared during the 2020 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The end of pandemic restrictions, Trump’s attacks on mailed ballots and new voting restrictions in some Republican-led states has led to a decline in the use of mailed ballots this year, but it still remains a popular option for many voters.

Experts say a last-minute crush of ballots could end up creating delays that can be used by a bad actor to undermine confidence in the election.

“It’s an opening for people to begin questioning and stoking mistrust and distrust,” said Chris Piper, former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections.

Discouraging early voting and encouraging voters to hold onto their mailed ballots until Election Day runs counter to efforts by most campaigns. Republican and Democratic candidates alike typically want to have as many ballots in hand as possible heading into Election Day so they can focus their efforts on getting stragglers to the polls and persuading undecided voters.

The dueling approaches have resulted in a confusing array of messages for Republican voters.

In Georgia, a recent online flier by one grassroots group read: “Voting in person and on Election Day is the only way to overwhelm the system.” A conservative group in the state, VoterGA, told its members to “protect” their votes by applying for an absentee ballot early and waiting to deliver it until Election Day.

The chair of the state Republican Party, David Shafer, recently tweeted on the party’s official account: “Voting in-person early is just as safe as voting in-person on Election Day!”

The cross-messaging also is hitting Republican voters in Arizona, which has high-stakes races this year for U.S. Senate, governor and secretary of state. Mail voting has been popular there among voters of both parties for years.

State Sen. Wendy Rogers, a Republican who backed a partisan review of 2020 ballots in Maricopa County, told viewers of One America News Network earlier this month that “we need to vote on the last day, the day of Election Day, so they don’t know how much to cheat by.”

But her party’s top candidates — who also have embraced false claims about the 2020 election — have recently tried to counter that strategy.

“If you have a mail-in ballot, I think that you should mail it in. I want people to vote,” Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for governor, told reporters this month. “And vote whatever way you want to vote, but vote.”

Lake has been among those calling for a rollback in mailed ballots and early voting, favoring instead a single day of in-person voting. Blake Masters, the Republican candidate for Senate in Arizona who also has Trump’s support, said it’s fine to vote by mail if that’s what a voter prefers.

“I want to know results on election night,” Masters told reporters earlier this month. “I’m telling people vote in person, if you can. If not, vote early and return via mail. And let’s know the result.”

It’s unclear whether the messaging for Republicans to hold onto their mailed ballots is having an effect. In two politically important states, the return rate for mailed ballots is slower than in previous elections — although it also could mean voters there remain undecided.

In Georgia, about 23 percent of mailed ballots have been returned with just over two weeks before Election Day, compared with about 35 percent at about the same time in 2020 and almost 37 percent in 2018. As of Oct. 19 in Wisconsin, 45 percent of mailed ballots had been returned, compared with 56 percent at the same point in 2020 and 2018.

Some Democrats also have advocated submitting ballots at the last minute — but based more on a political strategy than claims of fraud.

Pam Keith, an attorney, Democratic activist and former congressional candidate in Florida, said she thinks the predictability that Democrats will vote by mail gives Republicans an early hint at turnout levels. That’s why she is advocating for a surge of ballots at the last minute, catching Republicans off guard.

“By voting early, we are showing our hand,” Keith said. “We show what our turnout number is going to be. And if they know that the overwhelming majority of vote-by-mail ballots are in, then they know what they need to do to win.”

Keith’s advice strayed from that of many Democratic candidates, who have encouraged their supporters to vote early and by mail.

Story by Christina A. Cassidy and Ali Swenson. Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper and Scott Bauer contributed to this report.