Last week, President Trump fired off an angry tweet attacking Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, for expanding access to mail voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic:
Trump has previously expressed his opposition to mail voting — falsely claiming that it contributes to voter fraud and that it benefits Democratic candidates — but this attack still seemed to come out of the blue. As Benson pointed out in her response, several other states, including seven with Republican secretaries of state, also automatically mailed or are mailing absentee-ballot applications to voters for their primary elections, and none elicited a tweet from Trump.1 But Benson’s decision was different in that it applied not only to Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary, but also to the Nov. 3 general — an election in which Trump will be on the ballot.
By our count, only two other states have announced rule changes to the general election on account of the pandemic so far — New Hampshire and California.
- On April 9, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu announced that New Hampshire voters afraid to vote in person could vote absentee if the coronavirus is still a threat in the fall. Under normal circumstances, New Hampshire requires an excuse to vote absentee, but the state has advised that any voter can use the “disability” excuse during the pandemic.
- And on May 8, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered California to conduct the November election predominantly by mail, the same way states like Oregon and Washington already do. That means California will mail ballots to all 20.7 million registered voters, but limited in-person voting will still be available. A majority of voters in the Golden State already vote by mail, so while this will still be a major logistical undertaking, it will not be a big change for most Californians.
Why Trump didn’t attack New Hampshire probably has something to do with the fact that Sununu is a Republican and the change he announced was fairly minor (it simply brought New Hampshire in line with the 29 other states, plus the District of Columbia, that don’t require voters to give an excuse to vote absentee). But on Tuesday morning, he also took aim at California, erroneously claiming that the state will send ballots to “anyone living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there,” and calling it a “Rigged Election.” The Republican National Committee is also suing California in an effort to reverse Newsom’s order.
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Trump’s tweets came out at a time when many states are debating what changes, if any, to make to the administration of the general election in the face of the pandemic. Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is considering sending absentee-ballot applications to every voter, like Michigan. The Illinois legislature recently voted to send absentee-ballot applications to an estimated 5 million voters. And the Missouri legislature has passed a bill that would allow voters there to request an absentee ballot without an excuse, although most would have to get their ballots notarized.
But Trump’s tweets threaten to harden this issue along partisan lines. Minnesota and Illinois may go ahead with their plans, as their decision-makers are Democrats, but Republican Gov. Mike Parson may now think twice about signing Missouri’s bill. And other Republican-led states may decide against expanding the use of mail voting out of fear of invoking Trump’s wrath. Given how much time is necessary to prepare for a smooth mail election, that could have serious consequences if the coronavirus makes in-person voting inadvisable or impossible in the fall.