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.