WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Friday said the growing use of mail-in ballots is the “biggest risk” to his reelection, and his chances may hinge on whether he can successfully block efforts to make voting by mail easier during the pandemic.
Trump's comments were his first casting such high stakes for his multimillion-dollar legal campaign to fight mail-in voting. It comes as several battleground states are engaged in heated fights over plans for November's general election, and courts are settling partisan disputes over how easy it should be to vote by mail.
“My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” Trump said in an interview with Politico published Friday. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits, I think — I think it puts the election at risk.”
Health officials have said voting by mail can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But Trump has made clear he believes widespread mail-in voting would benefit Democrats. He has alleged — without citing evidence — that mail voting will lead to massive fraud, and the Republican National Committee has budgeted $20 million to fight Democratic lawsuits in at least 18 states aimed at expand it.
To some degree, Trump’s effort appears to be pushing against the tide. Many states, including some with GOP leaders, are moving ahead with plans that ease access to mail-in ballots. Wisconsin, a state that swung to Trump in 2016, decided this week to send absentee ballot requests to nearly all voters before November’s elections, a step already taken by Michigan, another swing state.
Primary elections have seen a surge in mail-in voting that suggests voters are comfortable casting ballots remotely. Many states already have easy access — requiring no excuses.
“The president and his supporters are actively fighting against vote by mail when that is somewhat of a moot point,” said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice. “In most of the country, voters are allowed to vote by mail and many chose to do so.”
“The question isn’t whether they should be moving to vote by mail — it is happening. The question is, Are we going to be ready for that change? It is coming. It is happening.”
Still, state legislatures and courts have plenty of details to fight about. The Democratic lawsuits typically seek a list of changes to state voting rules — such as allowing ballots to be collected by community groups, a practice often derided as ballot harvesting. They're also seeking to ensure ballots postmarked as late as Election Day are counted.
Arizona on Friday settled a Democratic lawsuit by agreeing to make it easier for minorities and rural residents to cast ballots remotely. The state agreed to expand the number of ballot drop boxes in rural, Latino and tribal areas and engage in an education campaign in Spanish and tribal languages about the absentee process.
There are also four federal lawsuits pending in Wisconsin, a state that Trump won by fewer than 73,000 votes in 2016. The state's bipartisan elections commission voted this week to send absentee ballot requests to 80% of voters ahead of November, after a chaotic April election.
In Michigan, the state's Democratic secretary of state has already sent absentee ballot requests to all voters before November.
Trump slammed Michigan's move, and his party has taken notice. In Iowa, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill to prevent that state's secretary of state, also a Republican, from sending all voters an absentee request — as he did for this month's primary — without approval of a legislative committee. The legislature also passed a bill making it harder for county elections officials to correct minor errors on mail ballots. It's unclear whether the state's Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, will sign the bills.
In California, in response to GOP litigation challenging Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to send every voter a mail ballot, the Democratic-controlled state legislature is formally approving that program. “Expanding vote-by-mail statewide is a necessity to protect our right to vote and our public health,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said.
In states with divided government, the action has been less dramatic. In North Carolina, a compromise bill passed the GOP-controlled legislature last week that would reduce from two to one the number of witnesses required to sign a voter's request for a mail ballot. The legislation, signed by Democratic Gov. Rory Cooper, also allows voters to request absentee ballots online or via fax.
Georgia's Republican secretary of state's office is also developing an online system where voters can request absentee ballots as it opts not to send out absentee ballot applications ahead of the November election after doing so for the state’s primary, prompting criticism from Democrats.
State election officials said the high cost of sending applications during the primary to 6.9 million registered voters plus the massive workload it triggered for local election offices caused them to rethink their plan for November.
“We are not scaling back our efforts,” said Gabe Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office. “We are refining our efforts so it can actually be successful with the resources we have available to us.”
Democrats in Congress are pushing to send $3.6 billion to states to help them revamp voting systems. Republicans have yet to act on the measure, contained in a Democratic bill that includes sweeping mandates on voting procedures that are considered a nonstarter in the GOP-controlled Senate.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that stopped short of the demands of county election officials, who had sought a longer early voting period and flexibility in consolidating polling places to address a poll worker shortage.
Instead, DeSantis' order would close schools on Election Day so they can serve as polling locations, state employees would receive administrative leave to staff precincts and more time would be allowed to count absentee ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Fla., Aamer Madhani in Washington and Dave Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.