Donald Trump pushes rigged voting myths on California Republicans. Why it worries GOP leaders

Former President Donald Trump wants California Republicans to believe false claims about rigged voting, a strategy that could cost him in a state where Democrats have embraced mail-in voting.

Trump painted a dark and dismal picture of the state Friday at the California GOP convention in Anaheim, where he told party faithful they are the “last line of defense standing between this state and total anarchy.”

“We’re thrilled to be here with the conservative patriots who are leading the charge to take back the state from the radical left lunatics,” he said.

Trump saved special ire for California’s mail-in ballots, saying Republicans could win statewide elections if not for the state’s voting system. The former president lost California by more than 30 points in 2016 and 2020.

“Nobody knows where they’re going, who they’re going to, who signs them, who delivers them, and who the hell counts them,” Trump said of mail-in ballots.

GOP concerns about Trump ‘rigged voting’ claims

California has been using vote-by-mail for decades. Voters began relying on it more heavily in the 2000s, with nearly 47% casting mailed ballots in 2006, the last time a Republican won statewide office, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

The state previously had an opt-in mailed ballot system, which required voters to request them if they didn’t want to go to the polls in person. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state began automatically mailing all voters a ballot.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2021 signed a law making this change permanent.

In 2020, 72% of voters used mail-in ballots. That number climbed to 91% during the 2022 midterm election.

California’s embrace of mail-in voting means some local GOP leaders would prefer Trump avoid making false claims about the integrity of the state’s elections.

“We have to work with the system that we have right now,” said Betsy Mahan, chair of the Sacramento County Republican Party, after Trump’s speech. “You can you can always try and change the system later, but right now we have to be realistic.”

“That means that ballots are going to be mailed to every voter,” she added. “And we have to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to turn out our people.”

Mahan said rigged voting talk is worrying because “there are people who get frustrated and say, ‘why bother?’”

She said she does want to see more attention being paid to inactive voters who remain on the rolls, a common Republican concern with mail-in voting.

Mahan hopes to put GOP voters’ mind at ease with “ballot harvesting,” which allows people to submit their ballots to a county party, rather than using the voting boxes local officials provide.

“I always point out that we have hundreds of election observers that are trained to watch the vote process and to make sure that things are being done with integrity,” she said. “And it gives people a lot more comfort.”

California delegates at stake

Trump needs to motivate voters to support him ahead of the March 5 primary election, when he could win California’s 169 delegates, a large portion of the 1,234 needed for nomination.

The former president is seeking to capitalize on new California GOP rules that would allow him to claim all of the national convention delegates if he captures 50% of the vote.

Trump came to California with a significant lead over his fellow Republican presidential candidates. An August Berkeley-IGS poll showed 55% of California GOP voters support Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trailed in second with 16%. rallied for Nevada Republicans near the California border ahead of the midterm elections.

Trump’s polling numbers have remained strong, even in the face of four criminal indictments. He could go to trial as soon as Monday for one case, brought by New York officials.

The former president’s speech follows Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley that he chose not to attend.

He barely mentioned his GOP opponents on Friday. But he took every opportunity to paint California as a lawless state plagued by crime and ineffective Democratic representatives, including Newsom, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff and House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi.

Notably, Trump avoided talking about Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died early Friday morning at age 90.

“This is a state that the right Republican can win and I think win easily,” he said. “All you have to do is go outside and look at what’s happening on the streets outside.”

Trump also took on state policies on water, electric vehicles and wildfires. The former president got the loudest applause when he attacked the state’s support of transgender Californians and suggested police should shoot retail thieves.

“We will prosecute those involved in California’s depraved new laws that strip parents of parental rights,” Trump said.

Trump made a wide range of promises for a prospective second term, including ending the Russia-Ukraine war, “knocking out” inflation, solving California’s water shortages, protecting parental rights and preventing “World War III.”

“I make this promise to you the great people of California, we’re going to save your state,” he said. “The great silent majority is rising like never before.”

The Bee Capitol Bureau’s Maggie Angst contributed to this story.