WASHINGTON — It was an election where Republican charges of fictitious voter fraud took center stage before, during and after the count, backed by a barrage of lawsuits intent on making it harder to cast or tally votes.
Yet by its end, Americans had cast ballots at a rate not seen in a century. A Democrat was elected president. And Republicans drew surprising support from Black and Latino voters — the very groups the party historically targeted with restrictive voting laws in state after state.
That a strategy Republicans long relied on largely fell flat, experts say, can be explained by the partisan divisions that drove record turnout, by self-inflicted wounds on the part of President Trump and by a pandemic that turned a gradual trend toward voting early — by mail or in person — into a stampede.
Some of those factors may be one-offs. But aspects of this election — especially the shift from Election Day voting to mail ballots, and the party’s surprising gains with some racial groups — raise questions of whether the Republican strategy of voter restrictions served the party’s interests as it once did. Also unclear is whether the changes in how people voted this year, in the middle of a pandemic, reflect long-term changes pointing to higher turnouts or factors unique to the 2020 vote.
“Stereotypes die hard, and this Republican idea that if more people vote it benefits Democrats was at some level more true in the past,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar of American politics and democracy at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “It was certainly true when Republicans believed that white working-class voters were Democrats. But it’s a ridiculous stereotype now.”
Mr. Ornstein is a relentless critic of Mr. Trump and the Republican Party’s increasingly authoritarian bent. And nobody expects party leaders to quickly abandon a strategy that has served its interests from North Carolina to Texas to North Dakota. Republicans have argued that measures like voter identification laws, purges of voter rolls and limits on mail ballots are necessary to combat fraud, but ballot fraud is so rare that the rules often accomplish little more than suppress legal turnout. Even so, such strategies have long been part of American politics and are not going away.
“As long as the Republican Party is going to depend on whiter, older and more rural electorate,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, “they’re going to make it harder for some people to register and vote.” Assertions of fraud, he said, fire up loyalists, increase political contributions and delegitimize Democratic victories.
“Already,” Dr. Hasen said, “Biden is going to come into office with millions of people believing falsely that he cheated his way into the presidency.”
But the election also highlighted how trying to place limits on casting a ballot might actually motivate voters to turn out. And even ignoring the toxic effects on democracy, some experts say, this was an election in which the results suggested that the Republican voting playbook may no longer be as effective as before.
Republicans in Texas outperformed expectations this fall, gaining inroads with Latino voters who are among those hit hardest by the state’s tough voting restrictions, which include a strict voter ID law that is geared to Republican-friendly constituencies and severely limited absentee balloting options. That cast doubt on the idea that Republican success comes from making it harder for Democrats to vote, said Joe Straus, the Republican speaker of the State House of Representatives until 2019.
That said, he added, the national party’s emphasis on discouraging voters in 2020 does not bode well for efforts to broaden its appeal. “That is not a good look,” he said. “Republicans ought to be the party that is encouraging people to vote and winning elections on ideas.”
Mr. Trump’s fact-challenged crusade against voting by mail, which he variously labeled “a scam,” “corrupt” and “dangerous,” “was a real head-scratcher to me,” Mr. Straus said. “Many Republicans, including myself, benefited from mail-in voting over the years.”
Nationally, Republicans have embraced absentee voting more than Democrats have. (And Mr. Trump himself has frequently voted absentee, including in this year’s Florida primary). This year, however, Republicans followed Mr. Trump’s lead in the general election and shied in droves from voting by mail.
How many of them turned up at the polls later is open to debate.
“I think Trump’s discouraging mail-in balloting during the campaign may well have cost him the election,” Mr. Hasen said.
Beyond that, the president’s fearmongering spurred a flood of news reports that debunked his claims while teaching Democrats who did cast mail votes how to do it correctly.
In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said a presidential tweet in May that falsely accused her of promoting absentee-ballot fraud turned into “a multi-front education effort from all sectors on how to vote absentee and why it’s reliable.”
“We ultimately were grateful even for negative attention,” she said.
Other analysts suggest that the right’s courtroom campaign to constrain voting hindered Republicans as much as it helped.
The most striking legal victory for Republicans came in Florida, where a federal appeals court upheld the Legislature’s requirement that former felons pay fines and court costs to regain the right to vote. The ruling, undermining a referendum overwhelmingly passed by Florida voters, effectively barred hundreds of thousands of Floridians with criminal records from registering to cast ballots.
Even that ruling, though, may have had a boomerang effect. Some analysts suggested that the publicity surrounding lawsuits and other Republican voter-security moves, like the party’s pledge to deploy 50,000 poll watchers in battleground states, actually worked in favor of Mr. Trump’s opponents.
“One effect the pre-election litigation and rhetoric did have was motivating citizens to vote exceptionally early,” said Barry Burden, who directs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
A key question is whether early voting will change American voters — and voting laws — in coming elections. The coronavirus pandemic turbocharged a shift away from Election Day voting to pre-election balloting, both in person and by mail.
According to the United States Elections Project, 47.2 million Americans voted early in the 2016 general election, roughly half by mail and half in person. This year that rocketed to 101.4 million — 65.5 million mail ballots and 35.9 million in-person votes.
“The data shows in other states that when voters begin using the mail and voting early, they embrace the convenience,” Ms. Benson said. “We’ll certainly see in future elections the majority of citizens voting early. What’s unknown is just how high that proportion will be.”
In many states, at least, voting by mail proved a positive for Democrats whose supporters had often faced hurdles like long lines at polling places. In suburban Atlanta, Carolyn Bourdeaux won a race for a previously Republican House seat by 10,000 votes in a state with a history of making in-person voting difficult.
“We had to fight for every vote,” she said. Voting by mail proved crucial: In 2018, when she lost a race for the same seat by fewer than 500 votes, one third of all mail ballots in the state that were thrown out for problems like mismatched signatures and missing addresses came from Gwinnett County, in her House district.
Ms. Bourdeaux later led lawsuits that simplified voting absentee, standardized verification rules and allowed voters to correct mistakes. This fall, only 0.1 percent of Gwinnett County mail ballots were rejected. In 2018, according to lawsuits at the time, the county’s rejection rate was about six percent.
Legal efforts to restrict mail balloting gained little traction this fall, but that could be temporary. Speaking on a podcast this past week, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, said falsely that all major industrialized nations have “gotten rid of or don’t have ballots by mail.” Citing unspecified “shenanigans” in mail ballots this fall, he called for the United States to outlaw absentee voting in all but limited circumstances.
David Wasserman, an analyst of the House of Representatives for the Cook Political Report, questioned whether many Republican tactics denounced by voting-rights experts as suppression affected many votes this year. Nor was he certain that misfires like Mr. Trump’s assault on voting by mail meant much in the end.
Some Texans were outraged by a court ruling limiting each county to a single location to drop off absentee ballots — a decision that gave millions of Houston voters one drop box in a county the size of Delaware. But voters still could mail ballots to election offices, he noted.
“There are examples of places where Republicans have impeded voters’ ability to cast ballots,” he said. “But a dispassionate reading of what transpired last week was that this was a fairly smoothly run election in which voters had, in many cases, very short lines to cast ballots and many opportunities to vote by mail.”
Some on the right see Republican gains with Black and Latino voters as evidence that the Republican message on fraud resonates more than voting rights advocates admit.
In New Mexico’s Second Congressional District, “a Trump Republican retook the seat with a platform pushing voter integrity,” said Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative group focused on illegal voting. In Starr County, Texas, a poor, Hispanic area near the border with Mexico where authorities have campaigned against election irregularities, “Trump nearly split the vote in a county where the G.O.P. doesn’t really exist.”
And some Republicans even suggested that the party might do better competing for Democratic-leaning voters than trying to discourage them.
“We saw with Joe Biden’s nomination that African-Americans are not exactly lefties, and we saw with the Latino vote in South Florida that an argument against socialism can be very persuasive,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican campaign strategist. “So there are avenues to expand the Republican coalition if we are savvy enough to take advantage of them.”
He added: “That’s the part I don’t know. A lot of that is going to depend on how much of a sway Donald Trump retains over the Republican Party when he is no longer president.”