Updated: Benson counters Trump’s inaccurate voting tweet: ‘We sent applications, not ballots’

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (left) and President Donald Trump (right)
Updated, 5:15 p.m. 5/20/20

A day after Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Michigan residents would receive absentee ballot applications for the August and November elections, the president took to Twitter to falsely accuse the state of voter fraud.

In a Wednesday morning tweet, President Trump claimed Michigan is sending absentee ballots to its 7.7 million registered voters. That is an incorrect statement. The state is distributing absentee ballot applications ahead of the two elections, not the actual ballots themselves. 

Vote-by-mail applications will be sent to all Michiganders for 2020 elections

Benson, a Democrat, opted for vote-by-mail applications to decrease COVID-19 public health risks posed by voting in-person, she said Tuesday. The applications will be distributed using $4.5 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds that have already come to the state. 

But the president called Benson “rogue” and threatened to “hold up funding” to the state if it uses this option. Trump has launched a series of attacks on voting by mail in recent months and claimed without evidence that it helps Democrats, even though it’s an option he’s used, as the Advance previously reported.

“Breaking: Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” wrote Trump in a Wednesday morning tweet. “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!”

Trump’s tweet came before his acknowledgement of two dams breaking in Midland, forcing an estimated 10,000 to evacuate. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declared a state of emergency.

To be clear, Michigan’s process of allowing any resident to vote via absentee ballot is entirely legal. In 2018, voters approved Proposal 3, which provides that any voter can use an absentee ballot to vote during the 40 days before an election.

In a tweet, Benson reaffirmed her choice to distribute absentee ballot applications and reference the fact that Trump did not refer to her by name, as he’s done with Whitmer, whom he’s called “the woman from Michigan.” He also threatened not to send aid for COVID-19 because of her criticism of the federal government response.

“Hi! I also have a name, it’s Jocelyn Benson,” she wrote in reply to Trump. “And we sent applications, not ballots. Just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.”

Jake Rollow, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of State, called Trump’s tweet inaccurate and said the department has full authority to mail applications to voters. 

“President Donald Trump’s statement is false,” he said in a statement. “The Bureau of Elections is mailing absent voter applications, not ballots. Applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations.”

About 1.3 million Michiganders are already on the permanent absentee ballot voter list. Benson on Tuesday said a large number of voters across the political spectrum want the option to vote by mail and mailing applications to registered voters will be “safe, accurate and secure.”

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

Trump brags he told Pence not to take Whitmer’s calls on COVID-19 help for Michigan

The move was also criticized by some Republicans in the GOP-led Legislature. state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) — a former secretary of state — said Benson had taken unilateral actions “with no input and questionable motivations.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson for state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said sending out applications is an “unnecessary expense.”

In another tweet, Trump also threatened to withhold funding from Nevada, a state that plans to conduct an all-mail primary election on June 9. In that state’s case, all residents will be mailed an actual absentee ballot. The state is not requiring voters to submit an application for one. 

The $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress and signed into law in March allocates $400 million for election preparations in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The president took to Twitter again Wednesday afternoon to issue a second, revised tweet attacking Benson’s plan to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered Michigan voters. Earlier on Wednesday, Trump sent out a since-deleted tweet that criticized Benson, saying “Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election.” However, the secretary of state’s office plans to send out ballot applications, not the actual ballots themselves. 

Trump’s second tweet revised the accusation to include “applications.”

“Michigan sends absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” he wrote. “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!”

Benson responded to the second tweet and said the president is “still wrong.”

“Hi again. Still wrong. Every Michigan registered voter has a right to vote by mail,” she wrote. “I have the authority and responsibility to make sure that they know how to exercise this right – just like my GOP colleagues are doing in GA, IA, NE and WV.”

Rollow issued another statement in response to Trump.

“President Donald Trump’s updated statement is also false. Absent voter applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations,” Rollow said in the statement. “Just like them, we have full authority to mail applications to ensure voters know they have the right to vote safely by mail.”

The application is also available online here, Rollow said.