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Trump threatens Michigan funding over Benson's decision to mail absentee apps

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to attack Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's plan to send absentee ballot applications to qualified Michigan voters ahead of the August and November elections. 

The president threatened federal funding for Michigan and erroneously said Benson planned to send absentee ballots, when the Detroit Democrat instead plans to send voters applications for the ballots ahead of the elections. 

President Donald Trump erroneously said the secretary of state planned to mail ballots. Applications for absentee ballots will be mailed to registered voters.

"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!.."

At the White House, Trump later defended his criticism of Michigan but wouldn't say what funding he might withhold from the state.

"We'll let you know if it's necessary. You'll be finding out. They'll be finding out very soon if it's necessary. I don't think it's going to be necessary," Trump said, according to a pool report. 

Trump again claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud, although experts say incidents of voter fraud are rare, particularly in national elections.

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

In a reply to his Wednesday tweet, Trump tagged his chief of staff Mark Meadows, the U.S. Treasury and Russ Vought, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget. 

Benson responded to Trump's tweet on Twitter, noting the state planned to send applications, not ballots to qualified voters.

"Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Viriginia," Benson wrote. 

Michigan already allows voters to cast ballots by mail for any reason.

In a statement Wednesday morning, Benson's spokesman Jake Rollow defended the secretary's decision. 

"Applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations," Rollow said. "Just like them, we have full authority to mail applications to ensure voters know they have the right to vote safely by mail."

Also on Twitter, the president threatened the state of Nevada for sending "illegal vote by mail ballots."

"They can't!" Trump wrote Wednesday. "If they do, 'I think' I can hold up funds to the state. Sorry, but you must not cheat in elections."

The threat against Michigan's funding comes at a time when the state is facing a $3.2 billion shortfall in the current year, a pandemic-induced budget hole the state is hoping to fill through federal aid.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said it was “outrageous” that Trump would threaten Michiganians' right to exercise their ability to have a no-reason absentee ballot, noting the change was adopted by popular referendum in 2018.  

Peters said he would hope Trump appreciates how voting by mail is a convenient and secure way to cast a ballot since the president himself voted by mail in recent elections. 

"If it is OK for him to vote by mail, I would hope he would agree it's all right for the people of Michigan to also be able to vote by mail," Peters said. 

“And to threaten to hold back federal funds when we’re in the middle of a pandemic? It’s simply unacceptable. And he may be confronted with a federal disaster declaration for the flooding in central Michigan,” Peters added.

“I would hope that he would approve that and let federal disaster funds flow into Michigan and not hold Michigan hostage for their desire to be able to conveniently exercise their fundamental democratic right to vote.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, fired back at Trump Wednesday on Twitter, calling him "President Incompetent."

"Michigan promotes democracy without jeopardizing people's health," Tlaib said. "You would rather oppress people and suppress the vote (per usual)."

Benson announced Tuesday that she will mail all of Michigan's 7.7 million voters an absentee voter application, an effort first employed in the May 5 election to curb in-person voting amid the coronavirus. 

Benson said earlier this month she was focused on educating voters on their right to vote absentee for no reason, a move approved by voters in 2018. 

But on Tuesday, Benson said her decision to send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter fulfills  the “responsibility to provide all voters equal access,” Benson said. 

“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote. Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”

The secretary of state plans to use federal CARES Act funding to pay the estimated $4.5 million it will cost to mail absentee ballots to every registered voter. 

Benson believes she has the authority to mail the applications to all qualified voters, Rollow said. But Republican leaders on Tuesday questioned why the secretary of state would take on a responsibility usually left to local clerks. 

“I do question how and why this specific mailing was done right now," said Republican Sen. Ruth Johnson, the former secretary of state. "... Like Gov. Whitmer, Secretary Benson seems to be taking unilateral actions with no input and questionable motives — and that is very troubling."

Democrats have encouraged increased voting by mail to make it easier for people to vote and, more recently, in light of lingering worries of coronavirus spread. 

But Republicans say Democrats are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to press for a wish list of election changes that have nothing to do with the pandemic. 

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel on Monday expressed concern that a national vote-by-mail system would open the door to problems such as potential election fraud and "ballot harvesting," with activists collecting “thousands” of mail-in absentee ballots that others have cast and submitting them in groups. 

“In this time of uncertainty, we need to have faith in our election process,” she said. 

“Imposing a new system on the states just months out from the election when they are totally unprepared to take on such a massive shift will result in significant problems in November."

Staff writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.