WASHINGTON - Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump picked a fight Wednesday with the key electoral swing state of Michigan over its expanded plan for absentee voting in the November presidential election.
An election official in the midwestern state, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, announced Tuesday that absentee ballot applications are being sent to all 7.7 million registered voters in the state, The plan, she said, is to give Michigan voters an opportunity to vote by mail in upcoming Democratic and Republican party primary elections in August and the national election Nov. 3, instead of having to go to public polling sites during the coronavirus crisis.
Trump voted by mail himself in a Florida election earlier this year, but he immediately objected to the Michigan absentee voting plan.
"This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” he said on Twitter. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” He also suggested that voting by mail was illegal in the western state of Nevada.
Benson quickly rebuffed Trump’s claim that her action was anything unusual.
“Hi! I also have a name, it’s Jocelyn Benson. And we sent applications, not ballots. Just like my (Republican) colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.”
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, also objected to Trump’s Twitter comment about his state, saying, “For the president to threaten federal funding in the midst of a pandemic over a state exercising its authority to run elections in a safe and legal manner is inappropriate and outrageous.”
The National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors said that with the pandemic playing havoc with public life in the U.S., election officials throughout the country “are weighing all contingencies to ensure elections this year are secure and accessible for all voters, including increasing absentee or mail-in voting and adjusting in-person voting as circumstances require and state laws permit.”
The two groups said that “currently, some states vote primarily in-person while other states vote by mail, but all states already offer some form of absentee voting by mail for domestic voters as well as for military and overseas citizens.”
Trump won Michigan in the 2016 election by 10,000 votes over Hillary Clinton en route to capturing a four-year term in the White House. The state, which includes Detroit, the country’s automotive manufacturing hub, is expected to be highly contested again in November, with Trump facing off against the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Early polls in the state show Biden narrowly ahead but it is still more than five months from Election Day. With the coronavirus pandemic controlling life in the U.S. for the last two months, neither Trump nor Biden has been able to stage the massive public political rallies that are central to U.S. presidential campaign, although both hope to do so in the coming weeks if large crowds can again mass safely.
Last month, Trump tweeted, “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state-wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”
The country’s biggest state, California, is also advancing plans for massive voting by mail. But in a sense absentee voting there is less contentious than in Michigan because the state is heavily Democratic and Trump is likely to lose it no matter how voters cast their ballots, by mail or in person at polling stations.
The Michigan plan calls for mailing out absentee voter applications. Voters then must fill out the applications and their signatures are checked against existing voting records on file to protect against fraud before the actual absentee voter ballots themselves are mailed to them.
“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Benson said. “Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe, and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”
Absentee voting has proved popular in Michigan during the pandemic as compared to earlier elections before the emergence of the health crisis.
In about 50 elections held across 33 counties in Michigan on May 5, nearly 25% of eligible voters cast ballots and 99% of them did so by mail or in a drop box. That was more than double the 12% turnout from 2010 to 2019 in such local May elections.
Vote fraud is rare in the U.S. although occasionally voters have been nabbed for voting in two different states if they have residences both places. There also is no statistical evidence that voting by mail favors one party over another.
But voter turnout sometimes increases with the prevalence of absentee voting, which Democrats generally believe favors their electoral chances.