The president has a dearth of credibility on election issues. He routinely cries “voter fraud” where none exists. He entertains so many election-flavored conspiracy theories, even the presidential race he won in 2016 has come under fire. And yet, he votes by mail. None of it makes much sense.
Wednesday morning, Trump claimed two states are breaking the law by allowing voters to mail in their ballots for upcoming elections, disregarding that Americans have been voting by mail for more than a century and that it’s risky to vote in person during the coronavirus pandemic.
Michigan and Nevada are battlegrounds in the November elections, but they’re not the only states planning to use absentee or mail-in ballots to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. For some reason, Trump did not tweet similar threats to Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska or West Virginia, several states doing the same thing as Michigan (but where his reelection prospects are better).
States and local governments are in charge of running U.S. elections. Each jurisdiction has its own set of rules, but all states offer accommodations for voters who cannot make it to the polls. “In two-thirds of the states, any qualified voter may vote absentee without offering an excuse, and in one-third of the states, an excuse is required,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Michigan modified its rules two years ago and now lets registered voters cast absentee ballots for any reason, “a change which helped increase absentee voting in the March 10 presidential primary from 18% four years ago to 38% this year,” according to the Detroit Free-Press.
In response to the coronavirus, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) announced this week that all 7.7 million registered voters in the state would receive applications for absentee ballots — not the ballots themselves, as Trump claimed — for elections in August and November. (More than six hours after his tweet, Trump deleted it and replaced it with one that said “absentee ballot applications.”)
“No voter should have to choose between their health & their vote,” Benson tweeted. “And every Michigan citizen has a right under our state constitution to vote by mail. With funding from the federal CARES act, I am ensuring every registered voter has the tools to conveniently exercise that right.”
Documented instances of voter fraud are exceedingly rare in the United States. The same is true with absentee voting, according to Richard L. Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California at Irvine. “There were 491 prosecutions related to absentee ballots in all elections nationwide between 2000 and 2012, out of literally billions of ballots cast,” Hasen wrote in an essay for The Washington Post.
Michigan is not alone, though the Free-Press reported Benson’s move might be challenged in court. Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska and West Virginia, where Republicans are in charge of elections, also are mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.
“Personally, I don’t really have an issue with absentee ballot request forms being sent out to voters as much as ballots being sent directly to voters,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel told reporters Monday. “We are really against, when people talk about mail-in voting, the ballots being sent directly to people who may or may not want them or sent to all the registered voters even when their voter rolls have not been cleaned up.”
Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R) has announced an all-mail election for the state’s June 9 primary but has not indicated similar plans for November. State law allows absentee voting for any reason.
In a statement responding to Trump’s claims, Cegavske’s office said a federal judge recently ruled that she “lawfully exercised authority granted to her by state law.”
“Nevada has many safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of an all-mail election, including signature requirements and verification processes, preprinted ballot return envelopes, barcode tracking, and laws against ballot harvesting,” the statement continued. “Voters concerned with mailing in their ballot may drop off their ballot at any designated drop-off location in their county.”
Trump’s tweets included a vague threat to pull funding from Michigan and Nevada. We asked the White House what legal authority he could use but received no response.
Michigan and Nevada already have received most of their funding under the Cares Act relief legislation. According to Treasury Department data, Michigan has been paid $3 billion of its $3.8 billion allocation, and Nevada has been paid $836 million from a $1.25 billion allocation.
It’s not clear more absentee voting in those states would hurt Trump’s chances. Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, tweeted that Michigan’s move “quite possibly would *aid* his prospects by turning out more low-education whites.”
(Update, 6:03 p.m.): After this fact check was published, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany held a briefing but declined to say which laws Michigan and Nevada allegedly broke with their vote-by-mail plans. McEnany referred questions to Trump’s campaign, which does not have a say over the federal funds Trump threatened to pull from the states.
A Trump campaign spokesman told PBS News: “President Trump is correct. There is no statutory authority for the secretary of state in Michigan to send absentee ballot applications to all voters. Existing case law in Michigan supports that conclusion as well.”
Michigan added a state constitutional right to vote by mail in a 2018 ballot referendum. Setting aside the fact that government officials routinely carry out their duties by taking actions not specifically authorized in statutes (it’s impossible to write laws for every conceivable scenario), the state of Michigan’s election statute gives the secretary of state the power to “advise and direct local election officials as to the proper methods of conducting elections” and to “prescribe and require uniform forms, notices, and supplies the secretary of state considers advisable for use in the conduct of elections and registrations,” among others.
In an unpublished opinion (meaning, it set no legal precedent), an intermediate appeals court in Michigan held in 2008 that a county clerk could not mail unsolicited ballot applications to voters above the age of 60. That opinion also says “the county clerk and the county board of election commissioners must follow the directions provided by the Secretary of State in her role as Michigan’s chief election officer.” Benson is the secretary of state, not a county clerk.
The Pinocchio Test
Add this one to the vast collection of Trump’s phony claims about voter fraud and rigged elections. He once again gets Four Pinocchios.
Michigan isn’t sending absentee ballots to all of its registered voters, as Trump claimed. The state is sending out applications for absentee ballots — the same as Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska and West Virginia — in a move that the RNC says is kosher.
Trump added the word “applications” to a subsequent tweet, but it didn’t salvage his claim.
Michigan and Nevada have laws in place to allow absentee voting. Neither Trump nor the White House could say which laws the states supposedly broke by mailing ballot applications or choosing to hold an all-mail primary.
Trump threatened to pull funding from the two states, but it’s not clear he has a legal avenue to do so, and the White House didn’t offer any explanation. Most of the Cares Act funding allocated to Michigan and Nevada is out the door already.
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