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Trump Targets Michigan to Push His Latest Lie on Imagined Mail-in Voting Fraud

Voting by mail is an essential option for a safe and fair election during Covid-19. The president seems to disagree, despite all evidence to the contrary.

  • Max Feldman
May 22, 2020
Saul Loeb/Getty

On Wednes­day, Pres­id­ent Trump tweeted that he would with­hold federal funds from Michigan, in response to the secret­ary of state prom­ising to deliver absentee ballot applic­a­tions to all of Michigan’s voters. This threat — which is wrong­headed and uncon­sti­tu­tional — came the same day the state suffered devast­at­ing floods.

As a matter of public policy, the pronounce­ment is damaging and nonsensical. As a matter of propa­ganda, however, it makes more sense. The pres­id­ent managed, with extraordin­ary economy, to cram numer­ous inac­curacies, false­hoods, threats, and hypo­cris­ies into fewer than 280 char­ac­ters. He is the Heming­way of elec­tion lies.

First, Trump claimed that Michigan was send­ing absentee ballots to all voters. Not so. Michigan is send­ing absentee ballot applic­a­tions to all voters. (The pres­id­ent appar­ently real­ized his mistake and deleted the tweet hours later, repla­cing it with a new one.)

Michigan has no-excuse absentee voting: every registered voter in the state is already entitled by law to cast a ballot by mail. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — the defin­ing char­ac­ter­istic of which is the need to main­tain social distan­cing — the secret­ary of state reas­on­ably decided to deliver absentee ballot applic­a­tions to voters rather than forcing them to, say, go to a govern­ment office to obtain one.

Contrary to the pres­id­ent’s sugges­tion, this is well within the scope of her legal author­ity. Moreover, it is a sound policy choice — one that numer­ous other elec­tion offi­cials, both Repub­lican and Demo­cratic, have made in response to Covid-19, includ­ing in states like Iowa, Geor­gia, Nebraska, and West Virginia.

Second, Trump connec­ted absentee voting with “voter fraud.” This charge is part of a years-long effort by the pres­id­ent to use the myth of wide­spread voter fraud to under­mine poten­tially adverse elec­tion results.

In 2016, the pres­id­ent told us, without any evid­ence, that millions of people had voted illeg­ally in the elec­tion. In 2018, he told us that in-person voting was where fraud took place — that “people get in line that have abso­lutely no right to vote and they go around in circles.” Now it is mail voting that’s the prob­lem. In Trump’s telling, our entire elec­tion system is rife with fraud. But the facts contra­dict that claim. Stud­ies have shown repeatedly that fraud by voters is not a signi­fic­ant prob­lem in Amer­ican elec­tions.

Mail-in voting, specific­ally, is a secure method of voting that has been widely used in our elec­tions for many years and has garnered support from both parties. Indeed, a recent Bren­nan Center poll found that four out of five Amer­ic­ans think that all voters should have a mail ballot option for Elec­tion Day, includ­ing 57 percent of Repub­lic­ans. Every state allows at least some of its voters to cast mail-in ballots, and most states allow all voters to cast mail-in ballots. And as many people have poin­ted out, Trump himself votes by mail.

Third, it is notable that the pres­id­ent chose to attack Michigan over absentee voting. Michigan’s no-excuse absentee voting policy was not passed by politi­cians — it was over­whelm­ingly adop­ted by the voters them­selves in 2018. Trump’s attacks on this system are, thus, doubly undemo­cratic.

Further­more, the irony of the pres­id­ent threat­en­ing retali­ation against a state offi­cial for execut­ing her state’s elec­tion laws is rich, given that for some time, the pres­id­ent’s allies have decried any congres­sional attempt to expand voting access as a “federal takeover” of state elec­tion func­tions.

The big lie here is that elec­tion offi­cials are push­ing absentee voting as part of some sort of plot to under­mine the elec­tion. The real­ity is the exact oppos­ite. In the face of the unpre­ced­en­ted threat to our elec­tions from Covid-19, they are taking common­sense steps to ensure that Amer­ic­ans do not have to risk their lives in order to vote in Novem­ber.