States, even red, warm to vote by mail

Trump has strongly op­posed the prac­tice

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Ni­cholas Wu and Joey Gar­ri­son

WASH­ING­TON – A month be­fore Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump lashed out at Michi­gan lead­ers Wed­nes­day for con­sid­er­ing a plan to send ab­sen­tee bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions to regis­tered vot­ers, the state of West Vir­ginia did ex­actly what Trump is now con­demn­ing.

So had Ne­braska. And Iowa. And Ge­or­gia. Sev­eral other states, in­clud­ing Florida and New York, are now do­ing the same.

Trump, who has railed against voteby-mail for weeks, took his as­sault one step fur­ther Wed­nes­day, threat­en­ing to with­hold fed­eral funds from Michi­gan if it “il­le­gally” sends ab­sen­tee bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tions to the state’s cit­i­zens ahead of its August 4 pri­mary and the Novem­ber elec­tion. He also blasted Ne­vada, call­ing its plan to send ab­sen­tee bal­lots to all regis­tered vot­ers be­fore its June 9 pri­mary a “great Voter Fraud sce­nario.”

Both are swing states led by Demo­cratic gov­er­nors that could help de­cide the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But the prac­tice has been widely used in other states, both Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic, in re­cent weeks ahead of state pri­maries, 17 of which were de­layed from ear­lier this spring be­cause of the COVID-19 out­break.

Most sec­re­taries of state said they made the proac­tive move to send ap­pli­ca­tions not only to ed­u­cate them about the op­tion but to en­cour­age them to vote by mail amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. They cited health rea­sons and a push to keep vot­ers from flood­ing a re­duced num­ber of polling sites with long lines.

West Vir­ginia Sec­re­tary of State Mac Warner, a Repub­li­can, said he chose to send ap­pli­ca­tions to all regis­tered vot­ers, both active and in­ac­tive, as a mat­ter of “fun­da­men­tal fair­ness” to alert all vot­ers to the new op­por­tu­nity to vote be­fore the state’s June 9 pri­mary.

“I wanted it to be uni­form across the state, so that’s why we chose in West

“I didn’t make up this idea out of whole cloth. I’ve been watch­ing other states that have ac­com­mo­dated re­al­ity and I’m do­ing what other Repub­li­can chief elec­tion of­fi­cials are do­ing in their states.” Michael Adams Ken­tucky sec­re­tary of state

“Be­cause of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, we wanted peo­ple to know that they had an op­tion.” Robert Ev­nen Ne­braska sec­re­tary of state

“I wanted it to be uni­form across the state, so that’s why we chose in West Vir­ginia to send the ap­pli­ca­tions to all 1.2 mil­lion regis­tered vot­ers, both active and in­ac­tive.” Mac Warner West Vir­ginia sec­re­tary of state

Vir­ginia to send the ap­pli­ca­tions to all 1.2 mil­lion regis­tered vot­ers, both active and in­ac­tive,” Warner said, de­clin­ing to re­spond to Trump’s re­marks. “I can just speak for West Vir­ginia.”

Ge­or­gia Sec­re­tary of State Brad Raf­fensperger, a Repub­li­can, told USA TO­DAY the state mailed 6.9 mil­lion ab­sen­tee bal­lot re­quest forms to all active Ge­or­gia vot­ers, to make sure Ge­or­gians can “cast their bal­lot with­out risk­ing their health.” Since then, 1.5 mil­lion Ge­or­gians had re­quested ab­sen­tee bal­lots, a mas­sive spike from the 40,000 re­quested in the state’s 2018 pri­mary or the more than 200,000 re­quested in the 2016 and 2018 gen­eral elec­tions.

Asked about Trump’s claims of voter fraud in mail-in elec­tions, Raf­fensperger said, “We be­lieve Pres­i­dent Trump’s con­cerns of voter fraud are real” and noted a task force had been es­tab­lished to in­ves­ti­gate fraud claims.

Thirty-four states and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., al­lowed ab­sen­tee vot­ing by mail with­out an ex­cuse even be­fore the pan­demic. Five states, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Colorado, Utah, Hawaii, con­duct their elec­tions en­tirely by mail.

Cal­i­for­nia, where two-thirds of vot­ers al­ready voted by mail, will move to an all-mail sys­tem in Novem­ber.

In sev­eral of the 16 states where vot­ers must pro­vide an ex­cuse to re­ceive an ab­sen­tee bal­lot – be­ing over 60 years old, out of town on Elec­tion Day, or in the mil­i­tary, for ex­am­ple – they can now cite the coro­n­avirus as a rea­son as well. Most states have made the move only for up­com­ing pri­mary elec­tions for now but could ex­tend that to Novem­ber later.

That in­cludes West Vir­ginia, which re­ceived a mas­sive re­sponse to their mailed ap­pli­ca­tions: 238,811 peo­ple re­quested bal­lots and 119,000 have turned them in. Typ­i­cally, only 3% of the state’s vot­ers vote ab­sen­tee.

“Those are quite sub­stan­tial num­bers for West Vir­ginia,” Warner said.

Only six states, mostly in the South, have nei­ther taken ac­tion to ex­pand vote-by-mail amid the pan­demic or are not al­low­ing the coraon­virus as an ex­cuse to seek an ab­sen­tee bal­lot.

Mas­sive ab­sen­tee vot­ing spikes

In states that have al­ready held pri­maries amid the pan­demic, vot­ers rushed to send in ab­sen­tee bal­lots rather than stand in line at polling places.

Ne­braska, a no-ex­cuse ab­sen­tee state, sent ap­pli­ca­tions to ev­ery regis­tered voter be­fore its May 12 pri­mary. More than 75% of the 471,000 votes were mailed in, help­ing break the state’s 48-year-old record for turnout in a pri­mary. His­tor­i­cally, around 25% of Ne­braska vot­ers vote by mail.

“Typ­i­cally, a voter will re­quest an early bal­lot on their own. In this elec­tion, ev­ery Ne­braska voter was sent an ap­pli­ca­tion for an early bal­lot, said Ne­braska Sec­re­tary of State Robert Ev­nen, a Repub­li­can. “This too is con­sis­tent by law. There’s noth­ing that calls for it or pre­vents it.

“Be­cause of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, we wanted peo­ple to know that they had an op­tion,” Ev­nen said. He too de­clined to re­spond to Trump’s re­marks but said Ne­braska would not likely send ab­sen­tee ap­pli­ca­tions again be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tion. “I’m very con­fi­dent that Ne­braska vot­ers know about it know and I don’t think we’re go­ing to need to re­peat that in a gen­eral elec­tion.”

Trump said Thurs­day mail-in bal­lots would “lead to to­tal elec­tion fraud,” con­tin­u­ing a cru­sade he’s made against mail-in vot­ing through­out the pan­demic. He’s also said it would hurt Repub­li­cans’ chances at the polls even though sev­eral Repub­li­can-con­trolled states al­ready al­low no-ex­cuse ab­sen­tee vot­ing.

“In my state, I’ll bet 90% of us vote by mail. It works very very well and it’s a very Repub­li­can state,” Sen. Mitt Rom­ney, R-Utah, told re­porters Wed­nes­day.

The Trump cam­paign called Michi­gan’s ini­tia­tive il­le­gal, with­out cit­ing any Michi­gan law. Ac­cord­ing to the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, a non­par­ti­san pub­lic pol­icy in­sti­tute, voter fraud rates for mail-in bal­lots are “in­finites­i­mally small.”

Ul­tra-red South Carolina is an­other state that typ­i­cally does not al­low noex­cuse

vot­ing but will al­low it for its June 9 pri­mary South Carolina Elec­tions Com­mis­sion spokesman Chris Whit­mire said the state had al­ready bro­ken the states’s record for ab­sen­tee vot­ing in a pri­mary on Mon­day – with more than three weeks of ab­sen­tee vot­ing still left.

In­di­ana, which Trump won by a land­slide in 2016, showed no signs of chang­ing its ab­sen­tee voter out­reach de­spite Trump’s com­ments.

“We’ve been en­gaged in a voter out­reach cam­paign for the last sev­eral weeks ex­plain­ing how to reg­is­ter to vote, re­quest an ab­sen­tee bal­lot, and re­turn an ab­sen­tee bal­lot,” said In­di­ana Sec­re­tary of State spokesman Ian Hauer. Hauer said 409,019 bal­lots had been re­quested for the state’s June 2 pri­mary, the state’s first time al­low­ing no-ex­cuse ab­sen­tee vot­ing, com­pared to 306,777 in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary.

In Ken­tucky, Demo­cratic Gov. Andy Bes­hear and Repub­li­can Sec­re­tary of State Michael Adams, agreed to make ab­sen­tee bal­lots avail­able with­out an ex­cuse for the state’s June 23 pri­mary. No de­ci­sion has been made for Novem­ber. Typ­i­cally, only 2% of Ken­tuck­ians vote by mail, but Adams is hop­ing 80% to 90% do dur­ing the up­com­ing elec­tion.

The state mailed post­cards to all regis­tered vot­ers to let them know about the op­tion and has agreed to pro­vide postage for those who want to mail in their bal­lot.

Adams said the big­gest chal­lenge is “calm­ing peo­ple’s fears,” par­tic­u­larly peo­ple in ru­ral parts of the state, who don’t trust the in­tegrity of the ab­sen­tee vot­ing process. He said he’s wor­ried about peo­ple ei­ther not un­der­stand­ing the process, or re­belling against it, and pack­ing the polls and po­ten­tially get­ting sick as a re­sult.

Adams said he wishes Trump was “a lit­tle more clear” in draw­ing the dis­tanc­ing be­tween ex­pand­ing ab­sen­tee vot­ing like Ken­tucky is un­der­tak­ing, and all­mail vot­ing in which states au­to­mat­i­cally send bal­lots to all vot­ers. He said he be­lieves Trump’s crit­i­cism is aimed at the lat­ter.

“It’s hard to be re­ally spe­cific in a tweet,” Adams said, adding that ev­ery state that’s voted since March has voted in a ver­sion like Ken­tucky.

“I didn’t make up this idea out of whole cloth. I’ve been watch­ing other states that have ac­com­mo­dated re­al­ity and I’m do­ing what other Repub­li­can chief elec­tion of­fi­cials are do­ing in their states. I don’t re­ally think that what we’re do­ing is that con­tro­ver­sial, but un­for­tu­nately peo­ple con­flate what he’s talk­ing about with what we’re do­ing.”

Michi­gan still planned to press ahead de­spite Trump’s crit­i­cism and what Michi­gan Sec­re­tary of State Jo­ce­lyn Ben­son called “mis­in­for­ma­tion” about ab­sen­tee vot­ing.

She told USA TO­DAY her re­ac­tion to Pres­i­dent Trump’s tweets about ab­sen­tee vot­ing in Michi­gan was “frus­tra­tion” about the spread of “in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion” on vot­ing in Michi­gan.

Ac­cess to the bal­lot, she said, was “not a par­ti­san thing,” and she hoped that peo­ple would rec­og­nize that her “Repub­li­can and Demo­crat col­leagues in other states are do­ing the same” to ed­u­cate vot­ers about their rights. Ben­son said even be­fore Trump’s com­ments, her of­fice had seen an in­crease in in­quiries about ab­sen­tee bal­lots as they worked to im­ple­ment a 2018 law le­gal­iz­ing no-ex­cuse ab­sen­tee vot­ing.

The “essence” of mail­ing ev­ery voter an ab­sen­tee bal­lot ap­pli­ca­tion was to in­form cit­i­zens of their right to vote, Ben­son ex­plained.

De­spite the con­tro­versy and some con­fu­sion among vot­ers, “two things are cer­tain,” she said. “The fact that we will have elec­tions this year on time, and on sched­ule.”

DAVID EG­GERT/AP

Michi­gan Sec­re­tary of State Jo­ce­lyn Ben­son says she is frus­trated about the spread of “in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion” on vot­ing in her state.

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