WASHINGTON (AP/WOOD) — President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened to hold up federal funds for two battleground states because they are trying to make it easier to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.
The president’s tweets targeting Michigan and Nevada were his latest salvo against voting by mail, a practice that he has publicly worried will lead so many people to vote that Republicans will lose in November.
Trump began by targeting Michigan, erroneously describing Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s announcement Tuesday that she would send absentee ballot applications to every voter in the state.
“Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
Benson said the president was misinformed in how Michigan is handling absentee voting.
“We did not send out ballots, which is not permitted by law. We sent out applications, which anyone is authorized to do under the law every citizen has a right to vote by mail in Michigan,” Benson told News 8. “We’re doing this in conjunction with our local clerks, many of whom had preceded our decision with a decision of their own to do this.
Trump later made a similar threat against Nevada, which has actually sent ballots to voters for its June 9 state primary, due to the coronavirus pandemic. A federal judge recently cleared Nevada’s decision to mail ballots, which were sent by the Republican secretary of state.
“State of Nevada ‘thinks’ that they can send out illegal vote by mail ballots, creating a great Voter Fraud scenario for the State and the U.S. They can’t! If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections,” Trump tweeted.
It was not immediately clear what funds Trump was referencing. The states are paying for their elections changes through coronavirus relief spending measures the president signed into law. Trump tagged his acting budget director, his chief of staff and the Treasury Department on the tweets.
Trump’s threats drew an immediate sharp response from Democrats, who alluded to impeaching the president for his threats to withhold aid from Ukraine if that country did not help his reelection effort.
“Trump has gone Ukraine on Michigan and Nevada, threatening to cut off funding for their audacity to not make voters choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We will not allow our democracy to become a casualty of this pandemic.”
Trump has been vocal about his opposition to voting by mail, claiming the practice is ripe for fraud although there is scant evidence of widespread wrongdoing with mail-in voting. Trump himself requested a mail ballot for Florida’s GOP primary last month and he has voted absentee in previous elections.
While Republicans insist that Trump’s position on the issue is nuanced and not simply an effort to suppress Democratic votes, the president undermined those arguments Wednesday morning.
“What we have in Michigan is in place in many other states that have been doing this for decades, which is a requirement that voters sign the envelope outside their ballot if they do vote by mail. And when they’re ballot is returned by mail, that signature outside on the envelope is used to match their voter registration and confirm they are exactly who they were when they registered to vote,” Benson said.
“So it’s not possible for someone to vote or return a ballot if it’s not the same person who was legitimately registered to vote and is registered to vote in our state.”
Benson noted Trump was objecting to her doing something that Republicans are also doing in other states. “‘Hi! I also have a name, it’s Jocelyn Benson. And we sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia,’” she tweeted at the president.
On Monday, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel portrayed the party’s $20 million campaign against Democratic efforts to expand mail voting as principled stance to protect the sanctity of the ballot. McDaniel said she had no objection to a system like the one Benson would announce the next day because there is a difference between sending all voters a form to request a ballot as opposed to the actual ballot.
Trump’s campaign has pushed his supporters to vote by mail and says its main objection is to mailing ballots to all voters. Five states that use this method have had no significant voter fraud cases. California earlier this month said it’d mail ballots to all voters for November.
Trump’s own Centers for Disease Control recommends voting by mail during the pandemic to minimize the risk of catching the virus at polling places.
The GOP-controlled Senate has so far stopped Democrats from mandating expanded mail and early voting as part of coronavirus relief bills, arguing states should be able to make decisions on their own election systems. The battle has largely moved to the courts, with Democrats filing at least 15 lawsuits to force states to expand their programs.
The GOP has fought back. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has argued that the virus should not automatically entitle voters to request an absentee ballot. A federal judge on Tuesday ruled otherwise, ordering the state to let all voters cite the disease as a legal excuse to request a ballot. Paxton has vowed an appeal.
“We know that misinformation is a tool that will be used to confuse all of our citizens, not just in Michigan, but elsewhere in this country about their rights this year. And that’s something we all have to lock arms and push back on simply with facts and data about how everyone can exercise their right to vote,” Benson said.
Of the half-dozen battleground states expected to decide the presidential election, only Arizona is close to widespread mail-voting. But key swing states like Michigan are scrambling to expand the practice in response to voter demand.
Mail voting in Wisconsin’s April 7 primary rose fivefold. Michigan saw increased demand for absentee ballots in its primaries earlier this month that helped lead to a record turnout, even though the state is one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic.
Michigan spent $4.5 million in federal funds allocated to help states adjust to voting during coronavirus to mail absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters for its August primary and November general election. Trump narrowly won the state in 2016 and Republicans have questioned whether Benson has authority to send the requests without approval of the legislature, which the GOP controls.
“I’ve done this work for the better part of two decades now, and every election, there is some element of confusion, especially an election we’re having this year where this is the first statewide major election where citizens will have this right to vote by mail that they voted overwhelmingly to give themselves amending our state constitution in 2018 to create this right,” Benson said.
Trump and the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, have clashed over federal assistance during the crisis, and the president planned to visit the state Thursday on a previously-scheduled trip to tour Ford’s ventilator assembly plant in Ypsilanti. Trump tweeted Wednesday as the state grappled with its latest challenge, severe flooding in one central Michigan county after two dams failed, forcing thousands to evacuate.
Three hours after threatening to hold up funding to Michigan, Trump tweeted: “My team is closely monitoring the flooding in Central Michigan – Stay SAFE and listen to local officials. Our brave First Responders are once again stepping up to serve their fellow citizens, THANK YOU!”
Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan contributed to this report.
News 8 contributed to this report.