States weigh vote-by-mail options amid Trump and GOP opposition

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Election workers begin to sort a new batch of ballots collected earlier in the day from drop boxes at the King County Elections office Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Renton, Wash. Voters in Washington all vote only by mail. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

President Trump has called mail-in voting “substantially fraudulent.” But amid growing concerns about a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall, states are trying to figure out how they will increase access to mail-in voting

The pandemic has prompted a total of 17 states to postpone their presidential primaries and expand their mail ballot access, with some states, like Rhode Island, Georgia and Maryland, sending out ballot application forms to registered voters. 

Five states —Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — already haveall-mail elections, which consist of a mix of sending ballots to registered voters and opening up limited polling centers for those that wish to vote in-person. States including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which previously had limited who could request a mail ballot, have opened access further for the November elections because of the pandemic.

Connecticut and Michigan are sending mail absentee ballot applications to registered voters for their state primaries and the general election. California, which already had a substantial mail vote, will be sending the ballots themselves to every voter.

Gallup poll showed that 64% of Americans support allowing all voters to vote-by-mail, though 83% of Democrats support it, compared to 40% of Republicans.  This divide exists despite the push from multiple Republican secretaries of state and governors for mail ballots in their primaries. 

Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, spearheaded a plan to automatically mail ballots to all voters for their primary, pushing back on the claim by President Trump and some Republican allies that nationwide ballot initiatives would lead to “total election fraud.”

Mr. Trump, a leading critic of vote-by-mail efforts, has doubled down on threats to withhold funds from Michigan and Nevada if they proceeded in expanding vote-by-mail efforts, but declined to say which funds he would freeze. 

The president tweeted again on Tuesday, targeting California Governor Gavin Newsom’s move to send absentee ballots directly to registered voters. “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” Mr. Trump wrote. “Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone………living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one. That will be followed up with professionals telling all of these people, many of whom have never even thought of voting before, how, and for whom, to vote. This will be a Rigged Election. No way!”

There exists no evidence of widespread or commonplace voter fraud in the U.S., either by mail in or in-person voting, according to legal experts. In states featuring entirely “vote by mail” elections instances of fraud are not statistically meaningful. 

The conservative Heritage Foundation hosts an online database that reports 1,285 cases of voter fraud, with 1,100 resulting in criminal convictions within the past two decades. Just 210 of these cases concerned fraudulent use of absentee ballots, with 143 ending in criminal convictions. 

Twitter on Tuesday evening added new “fact-check” notices to Mr. Trump’s tweets on mail-in voting. The president suggested Tuesday morning that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud in multiple posts online, though he provided no evidence.

“Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending ballots to millions of people, anyone….living in the state, no matter who they are or how they got there, will get one,” the president tweeted, in part.

Twitter inserted notices beneath each post, reading, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” Notices linked to a series of fact checking items with the headline “Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud.” Twitter’s fact check clarified that California would send mail in ballot only to registered voters.

A spokesperson for Twitter confirmed to CBS News this is the first time the company has fact-checked Mr. Trump on the platform, though it has been done for other world leaders. In March, Twitter marked one of the president’s retweets as “manipulated media,” after Mr. Trump shared an edited video of his political opponent Joe Biden posted by White House deputy chief of communications Dan Scavino.

Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale called the move a “smoke screen.” In a statement, Parscale said in part, “We always knew that Silicon Valley would pull out all the stops to obstruct and interfere with President Trump getting his message through to voters.”

In a joint effort, the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have vowed to pour $20 million into voting-related fights nationwide, opposing vote-by-mail initiatives in battleground states. 

Mr. Trump voted by mail earlier this year in Florida’s presidential primary election. The president changed his officialresidence from Trump Tower in Manhattan to his 17-acre club Mar-a-Lago in Doral, Florida, late last year, registering to vote in the Sunshine State with the club’s address. On Thursday he defended his decision about mailing in his ballot. 

“If you’re president of the United States, and if you voted in Florida, and you can’t be there, you should be able to send in a ballot.” The president, however, happened to be in Palm Beach County on March 7 and 8, the first weekend of Florida’s early voting for the March 17 presidential primary, so he could have voted at over a dozen county-wide polling sites. 

CBS News has counted 40 states and the District of Columbia that have not yet officially made changes to their mail vote for the November general election, though many have adopted it for the primaries and 27 of these states don’t have specific requirements to receive a mail ballot.
 
Montana does not require an excuse to obtain a mail ballot and had counties send mail ballots to registered voters for the primary. Yellowstone County election administrator Bret Rutherford said he has not heard anything about if that will be an option in November, but that he “wouldn’t bank on it.”
 
“We have so few cases of COVID-19 in the state. I don’t see it happening, but I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t tell you that we won’t be back in the same situation in a couple of months,” he told CBS News. “We’re just waiting with bated breath I guess.”
 
Those mail ballot requirements are currently being litigated in Texas, where a federal and state supreme court are handling cases about expanding who qualifies to vote by mail. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery granted a temporary injunction in favor of the Texas Democratic Party, enabling voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”
 
By Wednesday, Biery’s ruling was put on hold by a federal appeals court after a review wasrequested by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who claims widespread mail ballots will lead to fraud.Earlier in May, the State Supreme Court agreed with a lower court on a similar case that would allow voters who are not immune to COVID-19 to be able to get a mail ballot. That effort is also currently on hold. 
 
In a letter, Paxton said allowing voters to cite fears of contracting COVID-19 as a reason to get a mail ballot, “would at most amount to an emotional condition and not a physical condition.” He also said any third parties that promote mail ballots due to COVID-19 would be subject to criminal charges.
 
“One thing is clear, Texas law does not clearly and explicitly require citizens to endanger their health to vote,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “The Texas Supreme Court should stop Ken Paxton from trying to make criminals of people who simply wish to vote safely.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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