The president’s bizarre mid-pandemic campaign against voting by mail is reaching a new level of weirdness. Up until now, the main effect of his loud but unsubstantiated claims that voting by mail encourages fraud has been to sic MAGA bravos on secretaries of state — including Republicans — who are trying to figure out how to conduct elections at a time when most people are legitimately afraid to stand in line for hours at some elementary school in order to exercise the franchise. Kentucky Republican Michael Adams offered a revealing confession to NPR:
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams told NPR he got his “head taken off” by some fellow Republicans for his plan to send every registered voter a postcard telling them how they can easily apply for an absentee ballot for the state’s June 23 primary.
“The biggest challenge I have right now is making the concept of absentee voting less toxic for Republicans,” he said.
He even admitted his own demagoguing about “voter fraud” when running for the post has contributed to the belief that elections are insecure.
But now Trump has upped the ante in two tweets threatening withdrawal of federal funds from states expanding voting by mail:
Getting to the facts behind these tirades takes a bit of effort. As the Wall Street Journal notes, voting by mail is pretty strongly entrenched in Michigan law:
Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said Tuesday absentee-ballot applications would go to all the state’s 7.7 million registered voters ahead of its August primary and November general elections …
All Michigan voters have the right to vote by mail and can request an absentee ballot without providing a reason. The Secretary of State said that of the 7.7 million registered voters, 1.3 million are on the permanent absentee list and get an application from their local clerk ahead of every election, and some jurisdictions are mailing applications to all local registered voters.
All Benson is doing is providing some uniformity by sending voting-by-mail applications — not ballots, as Trump claims, but just applications — to registered voters. It’s hard to fathom why Trump calls this “illegal” or “without authorization,” and what business he has interpreting Michigan election law in the first place. The fact that he is traveling to the state this week probably explains why he targeted Michigan, and indicates he will probably have more toxic things to say about voting by mail when he gets there.
Benson responded to Trump’s blast by pointing out that she took the exact same action as “my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia,” who had primaries coming up soon and expedited the voting-by-mail process to ensure everyone had an opportunity to vote.
That’s also the situation in Nevada, with a primary scheduled for June 9. Like Michigan, Nevada is a state where you need no excuse to vote by mail. And while Michiganders can register to receive voting-by-mail applications regularly, in Nevada you can register as a permanent by-mail voter and receive ballots automatically. In the emergency circumstances of the pandemic, Republican secretary of state Barbara Cegavske just extended that courtesy to all “active” voters, a qualification that led to protests by Democrats that “inactive” voters might be excluded. But more to the point of Trump’s complaint, a Texas-based right-wing group famously involved in Election Day voter-intimidation efforts went to court to stop Nevada’s temporary system, and lost, as NPR reported:
On [April 30], a federal judge denied a request by True the Vote to block a Nevada plan to send absentee ballots to all active voters for the state’s June 9 primary. U.S. District Judge Miranda Du dismissed as “speculative” and “without any factual basis” the group’s claim that the plan would expose the election to fraud and thereby dilute the votes of legitimate voters.
Like Trump (presumably, anyway, since he hasn’t really presented any legal theory for why he has any business telling Nevada how to run elections), True the Vote is trying to suggest that federally ensured voting rights are somehow violated by widespread voting by mail since it allegedly (again, without proof) makes fraud easier to commit, diluting the votes of law-abiding citizens. It’s a pretty rich irony that conservatives would try to rely on federal voting-rights guarantees they have fought when exercised on behalf of the minority citizens for whom they were originally enacted — in order to restrict voting opportunities.
If Trump ordered the Justice Department to go to court and sue every single state to end voting by mail (which exists in some form everywhere), there would at least be some coherence to his approach to the issue. Instead, he is talking about somehow cutting off federal grants to Michigan and Nevada, which is provocative talk at a time when the coronavirus is wrecking state budgets everywhere, and the bipartisan National Governors’ Association is asking Congress for $500 billion in emergency fiscal assistance.
It’s possible Trump is thinking of this threat as analogous to his demands for a cut in certain federal law-enforcement assistance for “sanctuary” states and cities that do not cooperate completely with federal immigration-enforcement actions. This issue is being litigated through the federal court system, and the administration has won in some proceedings and lost in others. But while no one doubts the president has extensive powers to deal with immigration policy, there’s no inherent executive authority to intervene in elections, generally controlled by the states, barring some congressional mandate that is entirely lacking at present.
So to come full circle, it’s likely Trump is simply agitating the air, keeping the pressure up on Republicans to fight voting by mail (despite abundant evidence that it neither encourages fraud nor helps one party’s voters more than the other’s), and most important, laying down a marker whereby adverse election results in November can be challenged as the result of entirely imaginary but endlessly asserted “fraud.” It’s probably not a mistake that of the 50 states allowing voting by mail to one degree or another, or the 34 states with no-excuse-required absentee balloting, Trump singled out two battleground states for threats and abuse. It may just be an insurance policy he is taking out on the results in November.