SALT LAKE CITY — The Republican National Committee has doubled down on its effort to prevent states from expanding vote-by-mail and loosening other balloting restrictions for November’s election.

The battle between national GOP and Democratic parties and voting activists over who can vote and how those ballots are counted is longstanding. But the coronavirus pandemic has increased the stakes as state and local election officials seek ways to protect the health of voters and poll workers and allow as many eligible voters as possible to participate.

In a press call Monday, RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel accused Democrats of using the COVID-19 crisis “in a wholesale way try to change the election to fit many of their election agenda items that have existed long before this crisis.”

She said the RNC has doubled its budget to $20 million to fight lawsuits over voting rights and access in 13 states.

Marc Elias, a prominent election law attorney who is leading the Democratic Party’s effort, told Politico that many of the lawsuits they have filed involve expanding vote-by-mail rules.

He acknowledged, however, that the Republican Party’s aggressive opposition is an obstacle.

“We’re not unrealistic about the fight that is ahead,” Elias said. “There is no question that Donald Trump and the Republican Party have made opposing voting rights a top priority for their campaign.” The Trump administration disagrees with that characterization.

Fast tracking vote by mail in states where it is limited has become a sticking point in coronavirus emergency funding bills. Democrats are pushing for billions of dollars in aid to state elections officials and the Trump administration is resisting. The president contends voting by mail is prone to fraud, although research fails to back up that claim.

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“I want to be really clear on this. The RNC does not want to see any voter disenfranchised, we want every voter who’s legally able to vote to be able to vote,” McDaniels said. “But a national vote by mail system would open the door to a new set of problems, such as potential election fraud.”

The RNC’s massive investment is not limited to legal battles. The New York Times reported Monday that the party envisions recruiting up to 50,000 volunteers in 15 key states to monitor polling places and challenge ballots and voters that poll watchers deem suspicious.

Utah won’t be among those contested states, said state party executive director Laurel Price. Although, she said, it’s not uncommon to send party officials to a county clerk’s office to observe how ballots are handled on an election night.

“Every clerk’s office is a little different, so it’s helpful to get a really good look at the process,” she said. Price observed the Utah County operation, which had been maligned by Gov. Gary Herbert as dysfunctional after the November 2018 election, and came away impressed by the improvements since the last time she was there.

“It used to be very archaic and (County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner) has brought it into the 21st century,” Price said.

Utah, a Republican Party stronghold, is also one of only four states in the nation with universal mail-in balloting — an effort launched by Republican state lawmakers that had bipartisan support.

“I don’t think it’s the boogeyman that Donald Trump and Republicans are making it out to be,” said Amelia Showalter, a data scientist who has studied vote by mail’s impact on elections in Utah and Colorado. “It’s just a method of increasing civic participation, basically.”

Election coordinator Michael Fife prepares to put primary ballots into a counting machine at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Election experts say while voting by mail can be abused, it’s rare and inconsequential. No studies have found that making voting easier through early voting, same-day registration or vote by mail has favored one party over another, although the research has confirmed that mailing ballots to all voters does increase turnout across the board.

Those same experts say systems need to have controls, such as verifying the signature of the voter on the ballot, that typically take a few election cycles to develop, while many states just have a few months to get ready for November and even less time for upcoming primaries.

Ballot harvesting is another concern tied to vote by mail or early voting that the GOP is opposing in Nevada and Arizona. The practice allows someone other than the voter to deliver a ballot to a county dropoff location.

The Trump campaign and RNC intervened in Nevada, where Democrats recently sued the state to ease restrictions by mailing ballots to all registered voters and lifting the ban on ballot harvesting. While that case is pending, Arizona has appealed a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against its ballot harvesting law to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supporters of ballot harvesting say it allows voters who are unable to submit their ballot because of transportation, disability or some other obstacle to give it to someone else to drop it off. But Arizona lawmakers passed a bill in 2016 banning the practice based on reports that the harvested ballots were somehow manipulated by those who picked them up and dropped them off.

The circuit court ruled that the reports were false and other factors “unmistakably revealed that racial discrimination was a motivating factor in enacting” the law that violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

In Utah, ballot harvesting is only allowed for voters who are hospitalized or cannot leave a medical or long-term care institution to deliver their own ballot.