President Donald Trump’s recent tweets concerning absentee ballot use in Michigan and Nevada are a part of an ongoing pattern of abuse of power and undermining confidence in the political process. Outraged that secretaries of state in Michigan and Nevada were expanding vote-by-mail options, Trump recklessly tweeted that both secretaries of state were illegally sending ballots to voters.
His tweets came as election administrators and elected officials across the country have been grappling with how to provide for free and fair elections in the middle of a global pandemic, with many exploring options to shift to an all-mail system or scale up the use of absentee ballots. Trump’s decision to threaten states in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—and in the case of Michigan with some areas impacted by severe flooding—sends a message to people in dire need of help and support that the elected leader of the United States simply does not care.
Officials and advocates in both states immediately pushed back, emphasizing the extent to which fighting Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric has become a bipartisan project. “To me, it is also a reflection of what will be happening in our state in the months ahead, which is an effort to misinform and confuse voters about their rights in the state,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, addressing Trump’s attack on a recent appearance with Chris Hayes.
“So my responsibility is also to try to cut through that misinformation, that chaos, that confusion, and just clearly say to all of our voters regardless of who you’re voting for these are your choices, this is how you can vote this year. And give them that certainty that they’ll have that right to vote. It will be protected. And I’ll fight for everyone regardless of how they are voting to ensure their voices are heard.”
“For over a century, Nevadans, including members of the military, citizens residing outside the state, voters in designated mailing precincts, and voters requesting absentee ballots, have been voting by mail with no evidence of election fraud,” said Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, in a statement on her website. “All 17 counties have established processes and procedures in place for safe and secure mail-in voting.”
In Michigan, Aghogho Edevbie, the state director for All Voting is Local, denounced the tweets in more stark terms. “That is just disgusting,“ he said. “[To] say, you know what, I don’t care that you’re sick, I don’t care that you’re dying, I don’t care that you are in trouble, [or] you need help, if you don’t do it the way I want it done and vote for me, essentially, you get to die.”
Edevbie said when it comes to concerns about the integrity of elections, voters should trust local elected officials instead of the president. “They know what they’re doing and they’re trying to protect us and give us the right to vote that we all are given in the Constitution.”
It’s understandable that people may be apprehensive about a new method of voting, particularly when voting by mail means different things depending on the state. “I would push every voter to still please check in with your local county board of elections office,” said Aklima Khondoker, Georgia state director of All Voting is Local.
Claims that election officials were engaging in fraudulent activity serves no legitimate purpose other than to disrupt efforts to ensure all voters can safely cast ballots in upcoming elections.
Denouncing disinformation is not limited to partisan battles. In fact, such disinformation creates challenges for election administration and voter confidence. “It makes it harder to communicate that voting by mail is safe and secure,” said Ellen Moorhouse, deputy communications director for RepresentUs, responding to Prism by email.
For Moorhouse, this is not a partisan issue but an American one. “It’s so unfortunate that the concept of voting by mail has become a partisan issue,” she said. “Many states have done this since the ‘90s—and The Washington Post named Colorado the safest state to cast a vote.” In fact, U.S. soldiers have been voting by mail since the Civil War.
Still, as the pandemic rages, there are increasing examples of both Republicans and Democrats looking to combat disinformation and work toward safe elections. Moorhouse points to the newly launched VoteSafe as an example of bipartisan or “cross-partisan” cooperation to address election integrity and combat disinformation. The newly launched VoteSafe is co-chaired by former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Ridge. It serves as an independent cross-partisan effort including election officials and organizations.
In an open letter, Granholm and Ridge called on election administrators to take action ahead of November elections. Imploring election officials to avoid political games, Granholm and Ridge expressed that they do not want voters to have to choose between their health and exercising the right to vote. “Your constituents have stepped up to keep their communities safe and stop the spread of Covid-19,” they wrote. “Let’s return the favor and keep them safe as they exercise their fundamental right to vote.”
Another group challenging Trump’s rhetoric, Republicans for Rule of Law, is airing a commercial in Michigan directly aimed at threats to pull funding as a result of the state’s efforts to ensure every voter has access to the ballot as a part of an ongoing campaign with Defending Democracy.
“President Trump does not have the power to deny states funding that has already been unconditionally allocated by Congress,” said Chris Truax, spokesman for Republicans for the Rule of Law, in an emailed statement.
Titled “Everybody Should Be Able to Vote Safely,” the ad is scheduled to air nationally on Fox News and across digital platforms in Michigan. Truax also condemned Trump’s public attacks on vote-by-mail efforts. “Forcing people to stand in line to vote in the midst of a deadly pandemic is just insane and, frankly, evil as forcing health care workers to treat coronavirus victims without proper masks,” he said in the statement.
Vote by mail continues to draw support across party lines. A USA Today/Suffolk Poll earlier this month found that 65% of Americans supported voting by mail. While Trump and others spreading fears of fraud claim they are worried about security, they ignore the measures taken by Colorado and Washington that keep elections secure and accessible to all.
“There are proven ways to secure absentee ballots, such as signature verification, ballot tracking, and audits,” said Moorhouse. “Congress should provide the resources necessary, because time is running out to implement those systems.”
A growing chorus has requested funding for elections including aid to help states expand vote-by-mail options ahead of the November election. Funding requests from states show several issues with being able to scale up access in time for the general election; including upgrading voter registration systems for states that need to shift to online voter registration, making polling places safe to accommodate people with disabilities and others voting in person, bolstering vote-by-mail efforts, as well as additional voter education and outreach.
Bottom line, leaders should not be feeding into hysteria and fear regardless of whether the country is in a state of normalcy or crisis. Openly threatening states and spreading disinformation about safe methods of casting a ballot undermines democracy.
“Americans should not be forced to choose between public health and a functioning democracy,” said Khondoker. “We have to hold our politicians accountable and we will do that through our vote. Voting by mail is a safe and secure option.”