The president’s attacks on mail-in voting are at odds with how states — even red ones — have been operating for years.
RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — President Donald Trump spent Wednesday morning railing against state election officials over their expanded use of absentee voting. He first claimed Michigan and Nevada were illegally sending mail-in ballots to registered voters before deleting the tweet and replacing it with “applications for ballots.”
Trump and the Republican Party’s ongoing war with voting by mail is widely publicized, but the issue is sweeping into elections and courtrooms in real time as states respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
There is perhaps no better example of these unfolding changes than in Virginia. On Tuesday, the state saw at least 67,000 absentee ballots cast in its many municipal races — over 47 times as many mail-in votes than were cast four years ago.
Among the cities that saw spikes in absentee turnout was Fredericksburg. Established in 1728, the burg sits neatly between Washington, D.C., and the Virginia capital of Richmond, making it an ideal commuter destination.
While Trump spent his morning fuming over absentee ballots, the town’s incumbent mayor woke with a smile on her face.
“We had a very strong turnout of voters, which is very encouraging,” Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw, who will hold on to her position for another four years, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Not only did absentee ballots make up three-fourths of the votes in Fredericksburg, the number of mail-in votes this year eclipsed the total number of ballots cast in 2016.
“That strong turnout was partially because we made it easier to vote by absentee ballot,” Greenlaw said, pointing to the nature of her commuter constituents often missing in-person voting because they leave before and get home after polls close.
But this year, even if out of work, Virginia allowed voters to use the virus as an excuse to vote absentee — a change that will be made permanent when the state switches to a no-excuse absentee system in July, after legislators changed the law earlier this year.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, which is nestled inside Fredericksburg, wasn’t surprised by the increased absentee turnout. In a phone interview, he said voters not only enjoy the convenience and safety of voting by mail, but it is commonplace even in some red states.
“Trump is trying to make absentee voting a partisan issue but it’s really not. Some of the most Republican states in the country have mail-in ballot systems statewide,” Farnsworth said about the president’s Twitter outburst.
States like Utah, Ohio, Florida and others have all been using mail-in voting with minimal or no excuses for years, said Jonathan Diaz, the Campaign Legal Center’s counsel on voting rights.
Diaz and the CLC are currently involved in a number of legal fights dealing with absentee voting and other aspects of states’ voting systems, like ballot signature confirmation.
“There are plenty of states with Republican secretaries of state who actively encourage their voters to cast ballots by mail,” Diaz said in a phone call. “There’s no widespread voter fraud in Florida or Utah… there’s partisan lines being drawn at the national level, but when you hear from election administrators who conduct these elections, Republicans and Democrats alike encourage these mail-in systems.”
Diaz also pushed back on Trump’s tweets against absentee voting.
“Like most election-related things, it differs from state to state,” he said, pointing to some states that not only send out absentee applications, but send ballots automatically as well.
“Colorado, Washington, parts of California — vote by mail is the default,” he added.
But Republicans are not as excited about voting by mail. Hours after Trump’s tweets, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and members of the Nevada GOP fired off a letter to the state’s Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford.
McDaniel alleged ballot applications were sent to inactive voters and have been “littering Las Vegas’s streets, piling up in trash cans and apartment complexes, leaving Nevada’s elections open and vulnerable to fraud.”
As for Michigan, voters there, like in Virginia, are about to join the no-excuse absentee ranks and such action from state leaders helps inform them of their options.
“It’s an increasingly common procedure,” Diaz said.
In Virginia, the ability to use fear of the coronavirus as a reason to vote absentee got a boost from a settlement last month between state officials and the Virginia chapter of the League of Women Voters. The group had sued to challenge the witness signature requirement for absentee ballots, which was removed under the deal.
Still, a federal lawsuit filed last week challenges Virginia’s use of absentee voting for those who fear contracting Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, at the polls. It alleges the state elections board overstepped its authority in allowing for the new excuse.
In Texas, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that’s the current vote-by-mail statute – which allows voters over the age of 65 without a disability to vote absentee – is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, a Bill Clinton appointee, held that all Texas voters can choose to cast an absentee ballot during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Diaz and the CLC are trying to intervene in the Texas case. He said that state’s voting system will likely be decided by either the Fifth Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court, neither of which are likely to agree with Biery. But the CLC still hopes for an election where voters don’t have to choose between their health or their right to vote.
“The reason… there’s so many amendments around voting highlights just how important that vote is,” he said.
Back in Fredericksburg, Mayor Greenlaw broke a long-running tradition of voting in person and voted absentee. But she was present for the election; she watched over parts of the drive-through election in a deal made between candidates and the city registrar, which allowed for social distancing and keeping less than 10 people in the room at one time to avoid spreading the virus.
“It worked beautifully,” she said of the experience of voting with the new safeguards. “We would have heard complaints; people don’t hesitate to do so, and I didn’t hear any.”