Trump threatens to stop funding for Michigan if absentee ballots sent to all voters

©Detroit Free Press

President Donald Trump addresses his impeachment during a Merry Christmas campaign rally at the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, MI., in 2019. - Scott Olson/Getty Images North America/TNS

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning appeared to threaten funding for Michigan amid a global health pandemic if state officials move ahead with plans to send absentee ballot applications to every state voter.

It was far from clear, however, if the president understood what he was talking about.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Tuesday morning said, in a story first reported in the Free Press, that she and local clerks will send absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s 7.7 million voters so they can, if they choose to do so, take part in the Aug. 4 and Nov. 3 elections without going to polling places.

Doing so would allow them to avoid the potential threat posed by the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

But Trump’s post on Twitter about 7:50 a.m. appeared to suggest that Michigan was in the process of sending absentee ballots themselves — not the applications for people to ask for them if they wish to vote — to voters.

He wrote that it’s illegal for anyone to send unsolicited absentee ballots to voters and said that if it occurs, he will “ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

He also referred to Benson as a “rogue Secretary of State,” without mentioning her by name.

While it is illegal to send absentee ballots to voters who do not formally request them, it is far from clear that there are the same legal hurdles to sending applications for the absentee ballots to registered voters, though it could be challenged in court. Benson and some local clerks sent out applications to voters before the May 5 local elections in response to the pandemic.

Michigan holds primaries for offices other than president in August and the national general election is on the first Tuesday of November. The state authorized no-reason absentee voting in a referendum in 2018.

Riffing off early criticism of Trump when he referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “that woman from Michigan,” Benson responded on Twitter, saying, “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.”

Jake Rollow, Benson’s spokesman, also put out a statement saying Trump had it wrong.

“The Bureau of Elections is mailing absent voter applications, not ballots,” he said. “Applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations. Just like them, we have full authority to mail applications to ensure voters know they have the right to vote safely by mail.”

Trump, meanwhile, also wasn’t clear about what funding he was referring to, but Michigan is expected to receive billions in aid from the federal government under legislation previously approved by Congress.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other governors also have been clamoring for Trump and congressional Republicans to support more direct aid for states now seeing sharp revenue declines from the coronavirus shutdowns and layoffs. Last week, the state projected its revenues will take a $3.2 billion hit from the pandemic in the current fiscal year, a staggering amount.

Benson’s office has said it will cost about $4.5 million to send out absentee ballot applications to every voter, with some funding expected to come from federal sources — so it is possible that was the funding to which Trump referred.

But while there have been concerns raised nationally about the potential for corruption and missing ballots, there has been little evidence of widespread fraud caused by an increase in the use of absentee ballots. And while Trump has complained of corruption, he has voted by mail as well, in New York when he lived there and, this year, in Florida, which he has officially made his state of residence.

Democrats say generally that Republican opposition to voting by mail is intended to hold down turnout, especially among supporters of Democratic candidates. Trump won Michigan by less than two-tenths of 1% of the vote in Michigan four years ago.

By receiving absentee ballot applications at home, voters could fill them out and mail or drop them off at local clerks’ offices or take a photo of them and email them to clerks, saving them an in-person visit. Clerks would then compare the person’s signature with that on file in their offices and mail them an absentee ballot, which then could be mailed back or dropped off.

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©2020 Detroit Free Press