Trump threatens to withhold funds to states that vote nearly entirely by mail amid pandemic

Credit: AJC

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Trump slams mail-in voting

Credit: AJC

President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened to withhold federal funds to Michigan and Nevada as both key battleground states moved to conduct upcoming elections almost entirely by mail due to public health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Mail-in voting is already widely used across the country but has become a red-hot political issue this year as Republicans, including the president, continue to advance the unproven theory that mail-in votes are rife with fraud and will only benefit Democrats.

Explore»FROM APRIL: Trump denounces calls to expand mail-in voting for November 

Trump continues to denounce the practice even though he cast a mail-in ballot in Florida’s March 17 primary.

Happening now

The latest flare-up between the president and governors during the pandemic came a day after a federal judge ruled that all Texas voters could also request absentee mail-in ballots due to the pandemic.

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Also Tuesday, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced that all of the state’s registered voters will get an application to vote by mail in the August and November elections.

That decision led to Trump making the false claim on Twitter on Wednesday morning that Michigan had illegally mailed ballots.

“Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” Trump tweeted. “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 corrected the president about an hour after his tweet, clarifying that her office mailed applications for ballots “just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.”

Trump later updated his tweet to say “applications” instead of “ballots” but the president stopped short of correcting the false claim that the applications were sent illegally.

The president made no threats Wednesday to withhold federal funds from those Republican-led states, nor did he mention the Texas ruling.

Notably, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency Tuesday as rain-swollen rivers caused a major dam collapse in the central part of the state, displacing at least 10,000 residents. With her state budget already stretched thin by the coronavirus crisis, federal funds may be needed fast.

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Some talking heads in Washington circles questioned whether President Trump had the legal authority to withhold emergency funding to states just because he opposed their election processes.

Nevada, meanwhile, is sending all active registered voters an absentee ballot for the state’s upcoming June 9 primary. Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, introduced the vote-by-mail initiative in March.

The move was challenged in court by a conservative group, but a federal judge refused to block it in a ruling earlier this month.

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“The court finds that (Nevada’s) interests in protecting the health and safety of Nevada’s voters and to safeguard the voting franchise in light of the COVID-19 pandemic far outweigh any burden on plaintiff’s right to vote,” U.S. District Judge Miranda Du wrote in her opinion.

Trump remained defiant on the issue Wednesday.

“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.,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “They can’t! If they do, “I think” I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections.”

Later Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that President Trump “supports mail-in voting for a reason, when you have a reason that you are unable to be present.”

“But there’s a pandemic going on,” responded CNN correspondent Kaitlin Collins.

McEnany claimed the president’s tweets were “meant to alert” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget about his “concerns” over sending money to states amid “potential” fraud due to votes by mail. “With regard to the illegality and legality of it, that’s a question for the campaign,” McEnany said.

McEnany also defended the president’s own record of absentee voting.

“The president is, after all, the president,” she said, “which means he’s here in Washington. He’s unable to cast his vote down in Florida, his state of residence.”

Previously

Trump has long taken a strong public stance opposing  mail-in ballots, and appears to be ramping up his position as the November election approaches.

Trump also told Fox News on March 30 that “If you ever agree to it you’ll never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Explore»RELATED: Trump casts doubt on mail voting while his campaign promotes it

In early April, Trump said, “It shouldn’t be mail-in voting, it should be you go to a booth. You don’t send it in the mail where people pick up all sorts of bad things could happen. I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting.”

Four days later, Trump was back at the podium, calling mail-in ballots dangerous.

“People cheat. Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country,” he said April 7.

Even during the 2016 campaign, Trump derided mail-in ballots, repeatedly claiming the November election would be rigged against him.

“I have real problems with ballots being sent,” Trump said during a rally in October in Greeley, Colorado. “Like people say, ‘Oh, here's a ballot. Here’s another ballot, throw it away. Oh, here’s one I like, we’ll keep that one.’”

The Texas ruling 

In the Texas case, District Judge Fred Biery ruled the “disability” provision in the state’s vote-by-mail election code applies to all registered voters who “lack immunity from Covid-19 and fear infection at polling places.”

According to CNN, the state's election code defines "disability" as "a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter's health."

“The Court finds such fear and anxiety is inextricably intertwined with voters’ physical health. Such apprehension will limit citizens’ rights to cast their votes in person. The Court also finds that lack of immunity from Covid-19 is indeed a physical condition,” Biery said in the ruling.

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Democrats argue that mail-in voting should be made available for all voters given the concerns about spreading the pandemic.

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“This is about making sure that we’re able to conduct our democracy while we’re dealing with a pandemic,” said presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in a March 31 interview with MSNBC.

Biden called on Congress in April to provide funding for every state to allow voters to cast a ballot by mail in November.

Explore»RELATED: Biden backs mail vote, says Trump’s opposition ‘un-American’

“We have to make it easier for everybody to be able to vote, particularly if we are still basically in the kind of lockdown circumstances we are in now,” Biden told about 650 donors during an online fundraiser. “But that takes a lot of money, and it’s going to require us to provide money for states and insist they provide mail-in ballots.

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“He’s already trying to undermine the election with false claims of voter fraud and threatening to block essential COVID assistance if any extra funds go to the U.S. Postal Service,” Biden said. “What in God’s name was that about other than trying to let the word out that he’s going to do all that he can to make it very hard for people to vote.”

No proof of voter fraud

Multiple studies have determined no widespread fraud in U.S. elections or voting by mail.

The president's now-disbanded special commission on voter fraud, created in 2017, also found no evidence of widespread cheating from mail-in votes.

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In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who are both Republicans and led the commission, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said the documents show there was a "pre-ordained outcome" and that drafts of a commission report included a section on evidence of voter fraud that was "glaringly empty," The Associated Press reported in August 2018.

Strict security measures have been added through the years to ensure mailed ballots are verified through signatures in order to be counted.

CNN reports that Democrats and Republicans have won elections with a sizable number of mailed votes.

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There are fears the coronavirus could see a resurgence if states are not adequately prepared to meet the health safety challenges of bringing large crowds out to vote in person.

Wisconsin held its primary during the height of the outbreak. Some who went to the polls later tested positive for the virus, although it can’t be said for certain they were infected at voting stations.

Where states stand

Even before the pandemic, five states automatically sent every registered voter a ballot to cast by mail: Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii. Another 29 states, including Georgia, and Washington, D.C., allow mail-in ballots, but individual voters must first request one.

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This process is known as no-excuse absentee voting, and the key battleground state of Pennsylvania is trying it for the first time this year.

The remaining 16 states will only allow mail-in ballots if there is a pre-approved reason, such as being hospitalized or having to work on the day of the vote.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, announced an initiative last month to investigate any voting fraud that arises from widespread use of mailed-in ballots in Georgia’s primary.

Raffensperger, who mailed absentee ballot request forms to Georgia's 6.9 million active voters, said he wants to protect ballots as the state will increasingly rely on remote voting for the June 9 primary. On Wednesday he encouraged voters to submit their ballots by mail amid the pandemic.

“Considering the health risks posed by COVID-19, Georgians should seriously consider submitting an absentee ballot by mail for the June 9 elections."