President Donald Trump falsely claimed Wednesday that Michigan had sent absentee ballots to all of its registered voters and that the state’s secretary of state had somehow broken the law.
“Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” Trump tweeted at 7:51 AM. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
Six hours later, after numerous observers pointed out that the tweet was false in two ways, Trump deleted it and tweeted a new version – which corrected the first false claim but repeated the second.
“Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” Trump said in a 2:13 PM tweet, adding the word “applications” to the original sentence. “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!”
Facts First: Trump’s initial tweet was incorrect in two ways, his revised tweet incorrect in one. Michigan’s secretary of state, Democrat Jocelyn Benson, is sending absentee ballot applications, not actual absentee ballots, to all 7.7 million registered voters. Contrary to Trump’s claims in both tweets, this is not illegal. Republicans in other states have taken similar or even identical steps during the coronavirus pandemic.
And Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Monday that she doesn’t have a problem with absentee applications being sent out.
“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,” McDaniel said on a conference call with reporters. She said she thinks it’s acceptable as long as measures are kept in place to verify that voters are who they say they are.
The situation in Michigan
The Michigan absentee application form allows voters to request a ballot for the state’s non-presidential primaries in August, the general election in November, both, or all future elections.
Nothing about this is against the law.
Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 that allowed for people to vote absentee without providing a reason. Joshua Douglas, a University of Kentucky law professor who is an expert on election law, told CNN on Wednesday that he is not aware of anything in Michigan law that forbids the secretary of state from providing a request form to all voters – “and certainly nothing in federal law that forbids it.”
“President Donald Trump’s statement is false,” Jake Rollow, spokesman for the Michigan Department of State, said in a statement. “The Bureau of Elections is mailing absent voter applications, not ballots. Applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations. Just like them, we have full authority to mail applications to ensure voters know they have the right to vote safely by mail.”
After his initial tweet, Benson told Trump on Twitter that “we sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.”
After his second tweet, she responded, “Hi again. Still wrong. Every Michigan registered voter has a right to vote by mail.”
Republicans doing the same
Trump, who himself cast absentee ballots in 2018 and 2020, has repeatedly claimed that the expansion of mail voting will lead to major voter fraud. Experts say that while fraud is more common with mail voting than in-person voting, it is extremely rare in both cases.
Republicans are mounting an aggressive effort they say is meant to prevent voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election; Democrats say it is actually an effort to suppress voting by racial minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups. Trump, who has long promoted baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud by undocumented immigrants and in diverse urban centers, helped the Democratic argument in March by suggesting that higher “levels of voting” would prevent Republicans from being elected.
Still, some Republican secretaries of state have taken steps to expand vote-by-mail to protect voters’ health during the pandemic.
In Iowa, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate has, like Benson, decided to send all registered voters an absentee ballot request form for the state’s June primaries, saying “the safest way to vote will be by mail.”
In Georgia, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has decided to send absentee ballot request forms for the June primaries to all registered voters considered active.
In Kentucky, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams has decided to send postcards to all registered voters explaining how they can sign up online to request an absentee ballot for June primaries. “We’re hoping that probably 80 or even 90% of voters vote absentee so we can take the strain off our poll workers in our polling sites,” Adams has said, according to WKMS radio.
After his initial tweet about Michigan, Trump also threatened to withhold funding to Nevada over its plans for pandemic voting.
“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,” he tweeted.
Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, has decided to send voters an absentee ballot, no application necessary, specifically for the June primaries, which she plans to conduct almost entirely through mail voting.
Trump and his allies have not always been on the same page in their messages about mail voting.
Before Trump’s Wednesday threats to two states whose voting policies he doesn’t like, the campaign called for deference to states’ voting laws. (“Federalism works,” the campaign said last week in a statement on voting.) Last week, campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh had emphasized to CNN that their chief problem is with sending “an actual ballot” to every single voter, not with absentee voting generally.
Trump has also been frequently vague about his voting complaints. Though he has broadly denounced voting by mail as a “terrible thing,” he has also said without real explanation that absentee voting, which is largely done through the mail, is a “great” way to vote for people who can’t get to the polls on Election Day.