Republicans, Democrats push ahead on absentee voting
By NICHOLAS WU AND JOEY GARRISON | USA Today | Published: May 22, 2020
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WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Weeks before President Donald Trump lashed out at Michigan leaders for considering a plan to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, West Virginia did exactly what Trump is now condemning.
So did Nebraska. And Iowa. And Georgia. And several other states.
Trump, who has railed against vote-by-mail for weeks, took his assault a step further Wednesday, threatening to withhold federal funds from Michigan if it "illegally" sends absentee ballot applications to the state's citizens before its primary Aug. 4 and the election Nov. 3. He blasted Nevada on Twitter, calling its plan to send absentee ballots to all registered voters before its primary June 9 a "great Voter Fraud scenario."
But mailing absentee ballot request forms to all voters has been widely used in other states, helmed by Republicans and Democrats alike, in recent weeks. It has become a more pressing issue before state primaries, 17 of which were delayed from 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 voters about the option but to encourage them to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voters flocking to polling sites and standing in long lines on election night.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, said he sent applications to all 1.2 million registered voters, active and inactive, as a matter of "fundamental fairness" to educate citizens about the new option for voting in the primary June 9.
"I wanted it to be uniform across the state," Warner said, declining to respond to Trump's remarks. "I can just speak for West Virginia."
Thirty-four states and Washington, D.C., allowed absentee voting by mail without an excuse even before the pandemic. That includes five states, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii that 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 65 years old, out of town during Election Day, or in the military, for example – they can now cite coronavirus as a reason as well. Most states have made the change only for the upcoming primary election 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.
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 have 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.
Only five states, each in the South, have not taken action to expand vote-by-mail amid the pandemic nor are they allowing the coronavirus as an excuse to seek an absentee ballot.
Michigan presses ahead despite Trump's threat
Democrats, from the party's presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden to former first lady Michelle Obama, have rallied behind a rapid expansion of vote-by-mail to prepare for COVID-19 still posing health concerns during the November election.
In a conference call with reporters this week, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel made a distinction, arguing absentee ballots "should be requested by the voter and not automatically sent" by the state to every voter.
"That is a big difference in the nuance of how Democrats are talking about this and Republicans," McDaniel said.
But Michigan, led by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has not proposed sending ballots to all voters, only applications. The state planned to press ahead despite Trump's criticism and what Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, also a Democrat, called "misinformation" about absentee voting.
Benson told USA Today her reaction to 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, is “not a partisan thing,” and she hopes people will 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 rising 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.”
Coronavirus leads to massive absentee voting spikes
In states that have already held presidential 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 absentee ballot 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 now and I don't think we're going to need to repeat that in a general election."
Florida, a battleground state that allows no-excuse absentee voting, saw a 20% spike in early and mail voters during the state's March 17 primary.
Ahead of the state's Aug. 18 state primary and November election, counties had the choice whether to send absentee ballot applications to voters, according to Craig Latimer, who oversees elections in Hillsborough County, home of Tampa, and serves as president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections. He opted to send applications to Hillsborough's 660,000 registered voters.
"We wanted to make people aware of it. They have the opportunity to do it," said Latimer, a Democrat. "I got a lot of calls on Election Day March 17 from people who planned to come out and vote and now realized they were in that over 65 range, and they were in jeopardy, and they didn't want to take that (chance), and what in the world could they do?
"In the future, now what they can do is they can vote by mail if they want to."
New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, is allowing absentee voting in the state's June 23 primary under an order by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but a decision has not been made for November. The state mailed absentee applications to all voters who have a primary, according to John Conklin, spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections.
States confront 'fears' about absentee voting
Trump said Thursday mail-in ballots would "lead to total election fraud," continuing a crusade he's made – without evidence – 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."
Republican-leaning South Carolina is another state that typically does not allow no-excuse voting but will allow it for its June 9 primary. South Carolina State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said they had already broken the state'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 Ian Hauer, a spokesman for Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Republican. 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.
Asked about Trump's claims of voter fraud in mail-in elections, Raffensperger in Georgia said, "We believe President Trump’s concerns of voter fraud are real" and noted a task force had been established to investigate fraud claims.
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 distinction between expanding absentee voting like Kentucky is undertaking, and all-mail 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 before Trump's tweet about Michigan on Wednesday. He added that every state that’s voted since March has voted in the same way as 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."
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