States, even red, warm to vote by mail
Trump has strongly opposed the practice
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.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says she is frustrated about the spread of “inaccurate information” on voting in her state.