Earlier this month, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson made sure that every registered Michigan voter received an absentee ballot applications. This was done to maintain and expand voter turnout despite COVID-19 social distancing protocols ahead of the August 2020 congressional primaries and the November general election. Since voters can decide whether to complete the application, this move should have been uncontroversial. Unfortunately, our president has been spewing politicized misinformation regarding the mail-in voting process that has generated opposition to what should be a wholly optional and non-threatening process. 

For example, President Donald Trump has denounced widespread absentee voting as a “dangerous thing for this country” and a tool for “cheaters.” President Trump even threatened to withhold funding from Michigan during the COVID-19 pandemic to stop what he considers to be illegal support of “voter fraud.” Not only is there virtually no evidence that supports this idea that mail-in voting fosters fraud, but Trump’s words are far more dangerous for democracy than any of his fantasies of widespread voter fraud. This is because Trump’s followers in Michigan are now actively railing against absentee voting, which means they are advocating for limiting the perfectly legal options that voters have to cast their ballots — which is a textbook definition of voter suppression. There is absolutely nothing wrong if every qualified voter chooses to vote absentee in Michigan these coming election cycles, and anyone who says otherwise is simply inaccurate.   

On June 13, a protest was held in Walker, Mich., where demonstrators publicly burned the absentee ballot applications sent to them by Benson. The event, known as Operation Incinerator, was attended by a crowd that was distinctly Trump-supporting (as evidenced by a large amount of pro-Trump signs and apparel) and was likely inspired by Trump’s hypocritical rant against mail-in voting. While testifying before Congress, Benson slammed Trump’s words and the sentiment behind events similar to Operation Incinerator as “antithetical to our democracy” because they may confuse potential voters into not exercising their constitutional right to cast a ballot. 

Benson had previously made it clear that Trump was incorrect when he tweeted that Michigan had illegally sent “absentee ballots to 7.7 million people.” Only applications were sent, not ballots. Michigan’s Proposal 3, which became law in 2018, allows for registered voters to vote absentee via mail after filling out an application without a reason, making it the legal basis that Benson used for her absentee ballot application push. This alone is enough to kill Trump’s argument about the illegality of Michigan’s actions. In her aforementioned congressional testimony, Benson has also pointed out that election fraud is incredibly rare. There was only one arrest in all of Michigan made for election violations in 2018 and experts from the Brookings Institution strongly believe that the new absentee voting policies will not impact the likelihood of such violations occurring. 

A recent research paper released by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research found that, while mail-in voting did increase turnout substantially, neither party received a great advantage from the new votes. Charles Stewart III, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor, has stated that studies trying to deduce which party benefits the most from absentee voting by mail are “inconclusive.” In fact, according to Stewart, Republicans were more likely to vote absentee than Democrats, according to results from North Carolina in 2016. On his end, Trump has not provided any real and comprehensive reasoning behind his vehement opposition to absentee voting. Not only did his vice president, Mike Pence, encourage Michigan Republicans to “vote early” in December 2019, but Trump himself voted absentee multiple times (in New York in 2018 and in Florida for himself in 2020). This blatant hypocrisy — combined with the irrationality of going against something that may help his own party get voters — makes Trump’s comments and the fraudulence of mail-in voting patently nonsensical.

If Trump were a nobody, it would not matter what he did or said. However, since he is the president of the United States, everything he says, no matter how idiotic, can potentially incite something utterly ridiculous like Operation Incinerator. Even if Benson is totally wrong (although she almost certainly is not) about universal absentee voting opportunities preserving and augmenting turnout during COVID-19, her actions would still be neither illegal nor enabling criminality. She is not a “rogue secretary of state” for coming up with an innovative solution to a pressing issue facing our electoral system at the local, state and national levels. Trump needs to stop making a fool out of himself and his supporters. 

Tuhin Chakraborty can be reached at tchakra@umich.edu.


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