WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened funding for Michigan amid a global health pandemic if state officials move ahead with plans to send absentee ballot applications to every state voter.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Tuesday morning said 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, she said, would allow voters to avoid the potential threat posed by the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
But Trump, who has railed against widespread voting by mail, posted on Twitter Wednesday morning a suggestion that if she did so, he would move to block funding for Michigan.
In his first post, it was unclear whether the president understood what he was talking about, as he suggested Michigan was in the process of sending absentee ballots themselves - not the applications for people to ask for absentee ballots if they wish - to voters.
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He wrote it's illegal for anyone to send unsolicited absentee ballots to voters and said 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.
Trump made a similar threat on Twitter about efforts in Nevada to ensure voters get absentee ballots.
Hours later, on Wednesday afternoon, Trump edited and reposted the comment, adding the phrase "absentee ballot applications." Calling that illegal, however, is on far shakier ground than sending out absentee ballots themselves.
Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election. This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!..
- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2020
While it is illegal in Michigan 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 earlier criticism of Trump when he referred to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as "the woman from Michigan," Benson responded on Twitter to Trump's early morning post, 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."
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. https://t.co/kBsu4nHvOy
- Jocelyn Benson (@JocelynBenson) May 20, 2020
Jake Rollow, Benson's spokesman, also put out a statement saying Trump had the legal argument wrong.
"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," he said.
Trump wasn't clear about what funding he was referring to, but Michigan is expected to receive billions in coronavirus aid from the federal government under legislation previously approved by Congress, including a portion of $400 million set aside to the states to prepare for this year's elections under the threat of the pandemic.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday afternoon the president's tweets were "meant to alert (Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought) about his concerns" with trillions in funding headed out to the states.
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 staggering $3.2 billion hit from the pandemic in the current fiscal year.
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 that earlier legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by the president - so it is possible that was the funding to which Trump referred.
Trump himself later Wednesday declined to specify what funding he might withhold.
"You'll be finding out ... very soon if it's necessary" to withhold funding, he said after a meeting with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, according to a White House pool report. "I don't think it's going to be necessary."
"Mail-in ballots are a very dangerous thing. They're, they're subject of massive fraud," Trump said.
While there have been concerns raised nationally, especially among Republicans, 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.
Trump has complained of corruption, but he has voted by mail himself 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 four years ago.
On Wednesday, McEnany said there is "a lot of fraud potentially at play when you have mass absentee balloting" and that the president only supports absentee balloting for a reason. As to why he hasn't criticized some other states - including those led by Republican governors - for encouraging more absentee voting, she referred the question to the Trump campaign.
Asked specifically what laws Trump believed Benson was violating, McEnany refused to answer saying it was a campaign matter, though Trump's threat was clearly made as president - not as a candidate.
McEnany also quoted criticism of widespread absentee voting included in a 2005 report by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, led by former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican. That report, in one section, said absentee ballots "remain the largest source of potential voter fraud."
But the report also made clear that admonition was about ballots - not applications - and that states could overcome those criticisms by passing restrictions on who has access to ballots and taking campaign workers out of the process. It noted Oregon had "avoided significant fraud" by putting in place safeguards, including signature verification, similar to that required in Michigan.
By receiving absentee ballot applications at home, as proposed by Benson, 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.
Follow Todd Spangler on Twitter @tsspangler.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Trump threatens to withhold Michigan funding over absentee ballot apps