US president Donald Trump has lashed out at plans to roll out widespread mail-in voting in Michigan and Nevada, and threatened to hold up federal funding “if they want to go down this voter fraud path”.
The practicalities of voting in the coronavirus pandemic have emerged as a divisive issue in US political life, especially after Wisconsin pressed ahead with in-person voting last month at the urging of the state’s Republicans.
Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, said on Tuesday that every registered voter in the state would receive an application for an absentee ballot so they could take part in elections in August and November without appearing at a polling station.
There are 7.7m registered voters in Michigan, a key swing state that Mr Trump won by a razor-thin margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016.
On Wednesday morning, Mr Trump, a staunch critic of postal voting, said Ms Benson was “rogue” and had acted “illegally”.
“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,” Mr Trump said on Twitter. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”
Ms Benson swiftly replied on Twitter: “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.”
Mr Trump later sent a near-identical tweet to his earlier missive, with the word “ballots” changed to “applications”.
Mr Trump also attacked local officials in Nevada, where every registered voter was sent a postal ballot ahead of a primary election on June 9.
“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.,” the president said on Twitter. “They can’t! If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections.”
Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, defended the president’s actions, telling reporters Mr Trump wanted to “alert” US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and Russell Vought, acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, to his concerns.
Mr Trump has argued that the use of mail-in ballots will lead to widespread fraud and has called for voter ID laws and other rules restricting who can vote.
In one instance earlier this year, the president — who has voted by mail himself — suggested that extensive postal voting would spell the end of the GOP, telling Fox News: “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Research conducted after the 2016 presidential election suggests postal voting draws roughly equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Sean Eldridge, founder of Stand Up America, a progressive advocacy group, said on Wednesday that Mr Trump’s latest attacks were “inaccurate” and “incredibly dangerous”.
“By trafficking in debunked conspiracy theories and lying about the impact of voting by mail, Trump is clearly attempting to undermine our elections and suppress the vote in the middle of a pandemic,” said Mr Eldridge. “Americans should not be forced to risk their lives to cast their ballots — and Congress must intervene immediately.”
Democrats have led the charge on increasing federal funding to help states, which administer elections, increase voter turnout without requiring voters to appear at polling stations. In many cases, their demands have been welcomed by Republican state officials. Barbara Cegavske, Nevada’s secretary of state, is a Republican.
The $2.2tn Cares Act, signed into law by Mr Trump in March, included $400m in “election security grants” for states to help shore up voting systems.
The $3tn Heroes Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives last week, included $3.6bn in additional funds to allow for early voting and postal voting across the country. However, the Republican-controlled Senate is unlikely to take up that legislation.
Mail-in voting has also been at the centre of legal disputes, including in Texas, where on Tuesday a federal court ruled in favour of allowing all voters in the state to qualify for postal voting during the coronavirus pandemic. A federal appeals court put that ruling on hold on Wednesday, in a decision that could ultimately result in the case being sent to the US Supreme Court.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, five states — Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii — automatically sent ballots to every registered voter, while more than two dozen more allowed voters to request an absentee or mail-in ballot for any reason, including in crucial swing states such as Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.