US President Donald Trump is vehemently opposed to expanding mail voting. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP
US President Donald Trump is vehemently opposed to expanding mail voting. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP

US state accused of going ‘rogue’

Donald Trump has threatened to punish battleground states that expand access to mail voting ahead of this year's presidential election, warning he could cut off their funding from the federal government.

Today the US President lashed out at Nevada and Michigan, both of which are considered swing states, meaning either major party could win them in November.

Four years ago, Mr Trump won Michigan by a razor-thin margin of 11,000 votes, and only lost Nevada by 27,000.

The slightest swing in either direction this time around could be decisive. And because of that, there is intense scrutiny on the electoral process.

Complicating matters is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which may still be far from over six months from now. The fear is that Americans will be forced to choose between going to the polls and risking their health, or staying at home and not voting at all.

To address that problem, a number of US states are planning to expand access to mail voting, which would allow people to cast their ballots without standing in line with a bunch of potentially infectious strangers.

Nevada and Michigan are among those states.

The former is doing a trial run of sorts by mailing ballots to voters for the upcoming presidential primary on June 9.

It's largely a meaningless vote, as Mr Trump and former vice president Joe Biden are both already assured of winning their respective parties' nominations. But it is a chance to see widespread mail voting in action.

Meanwhile, Michigan's Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, yesterday announced an absentee ballot application would be sent to every registered voter in the state, giving them the chance to request a ballot for the general election.

Mr Trump is not happy about that. Today he called Ms Benson a "rogue" official, and accused her of distributing absentee ballots "illegally and without authorisation". He later corrected his tweet to say she was sending ballot applications, rather than the ballots themselves.

The President has repeatedly argued that mail voting will lead to widespread voter fraud.

In his tweets today, he reiterated that argument, and threatened to hold up federal funding to both Michigan and Nevada in retaliation for their efforts to expand mail voting.

It is unclear what, exactly, Mr Trump thinks is illegal about the states' conduct. Under the American system, each state is left to decide how it wishes to run its elections. The federal government does not have the power to "authorise" or forbid the distribution of mail ballots.

Ms Benson hit back at Mr Trump, pointing out that her Republican counterparts in states like Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia had done exactly the same thing.

Mr Trump is expected to win all of those states pretty comfortably in November, with the possible exception of Iowa. Perhaps that explains why he isn't as agitated about them.

The President got a chance to clarify his tweets when he spoke to reporters at the White House. One journalist asked him to specify why Nevada and Michigan's policies were "illegal".

"Well, if we're talking about the mail-in ballots, if people mail in ballots, there's a lot of illegality. They send in ballots that - they harvest ballots. You know all about harvesting. And they do lots of bad things," Mr Trump said.

"Ideally people go out and vote. Now, if you need a mail-in ballot - for example, I'm in the White House and I have to send a ballot to Florida. That makes sense. So if you need it for some reason. Or if somebody's not well, that's one thing.

"But when you send out 7.7 million mail-in ballots, there's forgeries. There's frankly duplication, where they print ballots on the same kind of paper, the same kind of machinery and you can't tell the difference. And they send in thousands and thousands of fake ballots.

"This nation can't be going down that path, because it's a very dangerous path to go down.

"Mail-in ballots are very dangerous. There's tremendous fraud involved and tremendous illegality."

Donald Trump speaking to reporters at the White House today. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP
Donald Trump speaking to reporters at the White House today. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP

He appeared to walk back his threat to cut funding to the states, saying he only had "very specific funding in mind" and didn't "think it's going to be necessary".

But there was no softening in his rhetoric against mail voting in general.

"Common sense would tell you that massive manipulation can take place. Massive. And you do, you have cases of fraudulent ballots, where they actually print them and they give them to people to sign. Maybe the same person signs them with different writing, different pens. I don't know, a lot of things can happen," Mr Trump continued.

"Now if you can, you should go and vote. Voting is an honour. It shouldn't be something where they send you a pile of stuff and you send it back.

"Another thing that happens, a lot of people in certain districts - this is historically - a lot of people in certain districts don't ever get their ballot. They keep calling, 'Where's my vote? Where's my ballot?' And election day passes and they forget about it.

"That can happen in the thousands. I'm not saying it does, but it can and probably has."

WHAT DOES THE EVIDENCE SAY?

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany expanded on the President's argument during today's media briefing, pointing to evidence that mail voting is more vulnerable to fraud than in-person voting.

"There's evidence. You can go look this up on ProPublica. There was a bipartisan consensus on the fact that mass mail-in voting can lead to fraud," Ms McEnany said.

"There was a 2005 commission by none other than President (Jimmy) Carter, who's not a member of the Republican Party, and James Baker (George W. Bush's secretary of state) about this. It concluded that these ballots, quote, 'remain the largest source of potential voter fraud'.

"So this is a concern. The President is right to look at this. We want a free and fair election, and that is his concern."

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP

The ProPublica article Ms McEnany cited was published in March. It examined the logistical challenges associated with ramping up mail voting in a short space of time, including the risk of voter fraud.

"Among the possible downsides of a quick transition (to mail voting) are increased voter fraud, logistical snafus and reduced turnout among voters who move frequently or lack a mailing address," the article stated.

It noted that ballot "harvesting" scandals had marred elections in North Carolina and Texas in recent years.

However, it also stressed, "All types of voter fraud are rare, including mail-in ballot fraud."

The story's author Jessica Huseman has accused Ms McEnany of mischaracterising her work.

The 2005 report Ms McEnany mentioned was authored by former president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and former secretary of state James Baker, a Republican.

The pair were tasked with examining how voter participation in federal elections could be safely expanded.

They did indeed find that mail ballots were the most vulnerable to voter fraud, but also laid out some safeguards states could implement to minimise the risk.

The issue has been examined in some depth elsewhere, including by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which also found mail voting was more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting.

"There are two major features of (absentee voting) that raise these concerns. First, the ballot is cast outside the public eye, and thus the opportunities for coercion and voter impersonation are greater," MIT said.

"Second, the transmission path of ballots is not as secure as traditional in-person ballots. These concerns relate both to ballots being intercepted and ballots being requested without the voter's permission.

"As with all forms of voter fraud, documented instances of fraud related to mail voting are rare. However, even many scholars who argue that fraud is generally rare agree that fraud with mail voting seems to be more frequent than with in-person voting."

TRUMP ACCUSED OF HYPOCRISY

One significant wrinkle in this debate is the fact that Mr Trump, despite arguing vociferously against expanding access to mail voting, has voted by mail himself.

In fact, he's done so as recently as March, when Florida - the state of his legal address, Mar-a-Lago - held its presidential primary.

"You voted by mail in Florida's election last month, didn't you?" a reporter asked him in April.

"Sure, I can vote by mail," Mr Trump replied.

"How do you reconcile that?" the reporter pressed.

"Because I'm allowed to," the President said.

"I happen to be in the White House, and I won't be able to go to Florida to vote."

Technically, Mr Trump could have voted in person. He was in Florida on the weekend early voting opened, on March 7 and 8, and spent part of each day at one of his golf clubs, which happened to be across the street from a polling place.

His decision to vote by mail instead came up again at today's White House briefing.

"The President is, after all, the President. Which means he's here in Washington. He's unable to cast his vote down in Florida, his state of residence," Ms McEnany said.

"(Mr Trump) supports mail-in voting for a reason, when you have a reason that you are unable to be present."

"But there's a pandemic going on," CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins pointed out.

"There is, right now. We're very far from November 3. I'm glad that you have a prediction tool and can tell us what will be happening on November 3. I certainly don't, nor does the President," Ms McEnany shot back.

The argument in favour of ramping up mail voting now is that if states wait until the last minute to see whether the virus is still a factor in November, they will not be able to expand their capacity in time.

That was actually the whole point the ProPublica article Ms McEnany cited. It was less about the specific danger of fraud, and more about the logistical difficulties that come with drastically expanding mail voting in a short period of time.

VOICE OF THE FEW

Even without the pandemic as a complicating factor, voting in America is already a challenge.

Bafflingly, the election is always held on a Tuesday. That tradition has its origins in the 1800s, when people's weekly routines were rather different.

The idea was to give farmers enough time to make it to their county seats, without impinging on times of worship or market days.

Now, the Tuesday tradition means people either have to take time off work to vote or try to cast their ballot in the early morning or late evening.

This leads to people standing in line for hours. During the Democratic primaries earlier this year, for example - back when they were still competitive - there were reports of people waiting five or six hours at some polling places.

Then you take into account considerations like childcare. If you are a single parent working a full-time job, you do not have a couple of spare hours to spend voting.

The result of all of this is a nation with abysmal voter turnout.

Fewer than 60 per cent of Americans cast ballots in 2016. So when you see the official popular vote for that election, with Hillary Clinton earning 48.2 per cent and Mr Trump 46.1 per cent, it's actually a little deceptive.

In truth, both candidates only earned the support of about 27 per cent of the eligible voting population. Mr Trump was elected President by just a quarter of the country. Had Ms Clinton won, her mandate would have been just as small.

That is the baseline here. Many Americans already find it too hard to vote, and the virus could make it even worse - restricting the democratic process to an even narrower slice of eligible voters than usual.

Democrats think increased mail voting is the solution, but it does come with some significant problems. Fraud is not the only one.

At the moment, the rules around voting by mail are a complicated patchwork, with each of America's 50 states using its own system.

Five states - Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Hawaii - already send mail ballots to everyone, even in normal times.

Twenty-eight states allow residents to vote by mail for any reason, but usually require them to actively request a mail ballot.

Among this group are a number of the crucial swing states that will decide the election - Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina.

Then there is the last group. Seventeen states only grant voters absentee ballots for specific reasons, and while "illness" is generally one of them, it is unclear whether fear of catching the coronavirus would be enough to qualify. The most significant example here is Texas, the second-largest state in the country.

In these states, voters could conceivably be forced into that nightmarish choice between risking exposure to the virus and forgoing voting altogether.

Say mail voting is drastically expanded by November. Then you run into the logistical issues.

The US Postal Service may not be equipped to deal with the drastic increase in volume that a large mail voting effort would inevitably cause.

The Trump administration has yet to approve a $US10 billion loan to the service, which was proposed during the process of passing America's coronavirus stimulus measures.

Absentee ballots take longer to count on election night, which means a large shift towards them and away from in-person voting could leave the country without an immediate result.

Finally, there is the risk that too many mailed-in votes won't be counted at all.

Under the existing rules, absentee ballots are rejected for all sorts of reasons. They might not arrive in time due to postal delays. The envelope might be missing one required piece of information, like a driver's licence number.

A survey of the 2018 midterm elections found 8.2 per cent of absentee ballots were not counted. That isn't a huge number under normal circumstances. But if a majority of people decide to vote by mail this year, we're suddenly talking about millions of votes being disqualified - and that is even if the postal system is able to cope.

The election between Mr Trump and Ms Clinton was ultimately decided by a few tens of thousands of votes, spread across three critical swing states.

The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore infamously came down to a few hundred ballots in Florida.

If the virus is still around in November, and mail voting becomes essential, any administrative slip-up could prove disastrous.

 



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