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Local and federal officials pushed back Wednesday against a barrage of tweets from President Donald Trump that appeared to lay the groundwork for alleging voter fraud ahead of November’s election, with Michigan’s secretary of state accusing the president of contributing to a wave of political “misinformation.”
As the coronavirus death toll in the US neared 100,000, Trump spent the morning tweeting error-filled missives directed at Michigan and Nevada; the states have launched initiatives to inform voters about their ability to vote by mail amid fears the pandemic could make in-person voting unsafe.
Trump first targeted Michigan, where he has been engaged in a public battle with Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s governor and a potential vice presidential pick for his likely election rival, Joe Biden. Trump accused the state of improperly sending absentee ballots to 7.7 million people — and hours later corrected it to read that the state had sent out applications for those ballots. He said the move was done “illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State” and said he would seek to hold funding for Michigan “if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” He later targeted Nevada, alleging it was creating a “great Voter Fraud scenario.” Trump added, “you must not cheat in elections.”
Several states, in line with local and federal regulations, have been encouraging mail-in ballots in a bid to avoid large gatherings as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Social gatherings pose a threat to voters and workers at poll sites, who often come from the most at-risk groups. In Wisconsin, health officials said at least 52 people who voted in person or worked at the polls during the state’s primary last month had gotten COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, though it remains unclear if there is a direct link to voting day.
Trump’s tweets came one day after Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, announced that the state's voters would be mailed applications to request an absentee ballot so that “no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote.” The state is due to hold a primary in August before the general election in November. More than 5,000 people in the state have died from COVID-19.
Benson told BuzzFeed News she was concerned Trump’s tweets could work to undermine voters’ faith in the election. “We know the important role that Michigan has this year on many levels with many races,” she said. “Because of that, we're prepared for multiple sources of efforts to misinform our voters — from foreign adversaries, bad actors, partisan actors. I didn't wake up this morning thinking I'd have to push back about efforts to misinform our voters about this particular issue coming from the White House, but that's indeed what we had to do, and we'll continue to do that in light of anyone from any party, from any source, that will in any way use a platform to misinform our voters about their rights.”
Trump won Michigan by just .23% of the vote in 2016. He is due to visit the state on Thursday to tour a Ford Motor plant in Ypsilanti that has pivoted to making personal protective equipment and ventilators to address the coronavirus crisis.
Two years ago, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to allow for absentee voting. Benson called her decision to mail out information and applications to Michigan’s voters “the opposite” of rogue. She said a similar effort during local elections on May 5 led to 99% of voters opting for mail-in ballots, leading to “the highest turnout we've ever had in a local election statewide.”
The current effort to mail absentee ballot applications to Michigan voters is being funded by money the state has received from the CARES Act, Benson said, adding that it had already received the funding in full. Asked to explain what Trump could have been referring to when he said “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” Benson said, “There is so much misinformation in those tweets that I don't know how to weigh any of it other than to simply just cut through and speak the truth.”
A Twitter spokesperson said the tweets did not violate Twitter policy. According to Twitter, the company does not see the tweets as trying to directly dissuade people from voting. Twitter's election integrity policy bans tweets that promote voter suppression.
Trump has loudly disparaged voting by mail, a method that could increase voter turnout in what is likely to be a hotly contested election. He tweeted about it last month, alleging that it carried “tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans," even though there is no evidence the method promotes widespread fraud. Later pressed at a briefing on why it was alright for him to vote by absentee ballot in the primary in Florida, where he is registered, Trump presented an evidence-free theory that the process for in-state and out-of-state absentee ballots is different.
Barbara Cegavske, Nevada’s secretary of state, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that the decision to allow mail-in voting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was “necessary and prudent” and “not made lightly,” and she assured voters that the state had “many safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of an all-mail election,” without mentioning Trump by name.
The fact that Trump had chosen to call out states whose secretaries of state are both women was not lost on Benson. Asked if Trump was singling them out because they are women, Benson said, “I hope not — although, you know, actions and evidence would suggest otherwise. It certainly isn't lost on me that colleagues in other states like Iowa, Nebraska, Georgia, West Virginia, who are doing the same thing we're doing, escaped the president's ire. Those aren't only of the same party but of course they're of the same gender. That is what it is.”
The office of Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger — a Republican who works with a Republican governor — issued a statement following Trump’s tweets saying that he was “encouraging Georgians to vote absentee by mail to protect their health and limit wait times at the ballot box.” A spokesperson for Raffensperger said the statement "had nothing to do with the President’s tweets and everything to do with elections in Georgia," which began early in-person voting on Monday for its June 9 primary.
“Considering the health risks posed by COVID-19, Georgians should seriously consider submitting an absentee ballot by mail for the June 9 elections,” Raffensperger said. Almost 1.5 million people in Georgia have requested absentee ballots already, he said.
The Republican National Committee stood by the president. “We have been clear that we cannot have rogue state officials or activist courts making unilateral decisions,” the group’s press secretary, Mandi Merritt, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “We continue to support lawful absentee voting with the proper safeguards in place, safeguards which Democrats are suing to eliminate in states like Michigan."
The National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors issued a joint statement noting that “election officials are weighing all contingencies to ensure elections this year are secure and accessible for all voters, including increasing absentee or mail-in voting and adjusting in-person voting as circumstances require and state laws permit.” The joint statement appears to undermine Trump's suggestion that Michigan and Nevada were undertaking “rogue” moves.
Trump appeared distant from the entire infrastructure designed to ensure that elections run smoothly. On Wednesday morning, just as the US president was kicking off his Twitter rant, the Trump-nominated head of the Elections Assistance Commission tweeted a photo in which he is wearing a mask and holding a mail-in ballot. The tweet reads: “Thank you Montgomery County Elections (@777Vote), MD State Board of Elections (@md_sbe) and @USPS for all you are doing to help #DeliverDemocracy! #2020Focus #Protect2020.”