Trump escalates fight against mail-in voting

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says inviting Russia to G7 'a question of common sense' Pentagon chief does not support invoking Insurrection Act Dershowitz: Does President Trump have power to declare martial law? MORE this week ratcheted up his attacks on mail-in voting as more states move to increase absentee ballot access due to coronavirus uncertainties.

The president has levied unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud dating back to the 2016 election and has continued to do so even though he was victorious. But he took his complaints a step further in threatening to withhold federal funding from Michigan and Nevada, two potential swing states, as they took different steps to allow residents to vote by mail.

"To really vote, and without fraud, you have to go and you have to vote at the polling place," Trump said Thursday at a Ford factory in Michigan, arguing that mail-in voting is "wrought with fraud and abuse."

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The president has targeted Democrat-run states over their efforts to expand mail-in voting to ensure safety during the pandemic, lashing out in recent weeks at Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and California. GOP-led states such as Nebraska, West Virginia and Georgia have made similar plans to offer applications for absentee ballots but have not drawn sharp rebukes from the Oval Office.

Experts note there is minimal evidence of meaningful fraud in mail-in voting, and some see Trump’s latest round of attacks as an effort to restrict ballot access and preemptively cast suspicion on the 2020 election results should he lose.

“It’s just a new variation on how he was calling into question the election results before the election happened and sowing distrust,” said Doug Heye, former Republican National Committee communications director. “You didn’t hear Republicans talking about mail-in ballots being a problem six months ago or four years ago.”

The president has in recent weeks decried mail-in voting as “corrupt,” “terrible” and “very dangerous,” insisting Americans should vote in person barring extraordinary circumstances and be required to present identification.

But on Wednesday, he added a threat to those criticisms after being set off Wednesday by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), who sent applications to voters to fill out and return if they want an absentee ballot.

Trump initially mistook the measure as sending out actual ballots and claimed it was “done illegally.”

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He threatened to withhold funding for Michigan if it did not backtrack, even as his allies struggled to point to a specific law the state had violated. Experts said the Trump campaign could sue Michigan if it saw an issue with Benson’s actions but argued they were not a basis to withhold federal funds.

The president has declined to elaborate on what government funding he would target and instead has broadened his criticism to mail-in voting as a whole.

Trump, who voted by mail in Florida’s primary election this year, said there should be few exceptions for allowing absentee ballots.

“Now, if you're president of the United States and if you vote in Florida and you can't be there, you should be able to send in a ballot,” he said Thursday. “If you're not well — you're feeling terrible, you're sick — you have a reasonable excuse, just a reasonable excuse, you should be able to vote by mail-in.”

It’s unclear if Trump views the pandemic as a “reasonable excuse,” and it’s unknown whether a severe outbreak will hit in November and dissuade voters from casting a ballot in person.

But experts said states should be taking steps now to allow voters to request mail-in ballots to avoid a potential onslaught of paperwork and last-minute confusion in the fall.

“In 2016, the federal government reported over 300,000 mail ballots that were rejected,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. “We could easily see more than 1 million in this election cycle because many people are unfamiliar with mail balloting and will be casting their first mail ballot ever.”

The president’s latest round of attacks could undermine confidence in the electoral system ahead of the November election at a time when voting may already look different because of the pandemic. Election officials may have difficulty finding enough volunteers and protective equipment to staff polling places, and fewer voting locations will lead to longer lines.

Trump’s rhetoric could have the unintended consequence of undermining ballot access for some of his supporters, experts said, noting that rural areas already tend to have fewer polling locations.

“If you want to go vote for Trump and you’re not going to vote by mail, there will be fewer options for you where you can vote and you’re going to have to stand in a longer line,” McDonald said. “There’s pretty good evidence that if it takes all day, you’re going to do something else.”

Trump’s comments also run contrary to the action of his own party. Both Republican and Democratic party leaders have encouraged voting by mail in recent months, and state officials from both parties have sent out applications for absentee ballots so residents can vote in primaries.

The president on Wednesday also threatened funding for Nevada, where the Republican secretary of state sent out absentee ballots to voters ahead of the state’s June 9 primary. The secretary of state’s office issued a statement saying Nevadans had been voting by mail for a century “with no evidence of election fraud” and that the decision to primarily hold the primary via mail was done “lawfully.”

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Primaries in recent weeks have increasingly relied on mail ballots as voters take into account the health risks of standing in line at polling places. In Wisconsin, more than 1 million absentee ballots were submitted for the state’s primary and special election in April.

Trump’s cries of voter fraud date back to 2016. Even after he defeated Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump, Biden battle to shape opinion on scenes of unrest Sessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines The Memo: Trump lags in polls as crises press MORE, he claimed millions of illegal votes were the reason he didn’t win the popular vote. The president later set up a commission tasked with looking for evidence to support his claims, but it disbanded without finding any proof.

He has since alleged that undocumented immigrants vote illegally en masse, even theorizing that they change clothes so they can vote multiple times.

But there is scant evidence of widespread voter fraud, particularly by mail. The most recent instance came in a North Carolina special election, where the Republican candidate was buoyed by fraudulent absentee ballots.

States have implemented security provisions to prevent and detect fraud, such as unique barcodes, ballot tracking through the Postal Service and signature matching.

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington already conduct their elections by mail. Oregon has mailed out more than 100 million ballots since 2000 and has documented roughly a dozen cases of proven fraud, according to the National Vote at Home Coalition.

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“There’s no form of voting that is absolutely foolproof ... but mail voting is very secure. The rate of fraud is very small,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

“It is very easy to get caught, and it is roughly similar to the rate of fraud of in-person voting, which again is very small,” she added. “It just does not happen at any scale.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed.