WASHINGTON — By threatening on Wednesday to withhold federal grants to Michigan and Nevada if those states send absentee ballots or applications to voters, President Trump has taken his latest stand against what is increasingly viewed as a necessary option for voting amid a pandemic.
What he has not done is stop anyone from getting an absentee ballot.
In the face of a pandemic, what was already limited opposition to letting voters mail in their ballots has withered. Eleven of the 16 states that limit who can vote absentee have eased their election rules this spring to let anyone cast an absentee ballot in upcoming primary elections — and in some cases, in November as well. Another state, Texas, is fighting a court order to do so.
Four of those 11 states are mailing ballot applications to registered voters, just as Michigan and Nevada are doing. And that does not count 34 other states and the District of Columbia that already allow anyone to cast an absentee ballot, including five states in which voting by mail is the preferred method by law.
“Every once in a while you get the president of the United States popping up and screaming against vote-by-mail, but states and both political parties are organizing their people for it,” said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “It’s a bizarre cognitive dissonance.”
Many of the states that have relaxed their rules have done so only for pending primary elections, leaving the possibility that they could choose not to do so in November. But that is highly unlikely, said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political scientist and expert on mail ballots.
“The horse is out of the barn whether it’s primaries or the general election,” he said. “The optics are such that states will be under enormous pressure to continue to allow mail voting in the fall.”
Even as the president has offered support for some groups of absentee voters like older Americans and military serving abroad — and even as he votes absentee himself — Mr. Trump has regularly warned with no factual basis that allowing widespread voting by mail was a recipe for election theft. “You get thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room, signing ballots all over the place,” Mr. Trump said at a White House briefing last month.
Despite ballot stuffing scandals in the nation’s past, and an absentee vote scandal involving Republicans in North Carolina in 2018, nothing remotely comparable has been documented in modern American politics or linked to voting by mail.
What little fraud that occurs is often committed by insiders, not voters, and limiting mail balloting or enacting measures like ID laws would not deter it. The latest example: Two local political figures pleaded guilty on Thursday to accepting $2,500 in bribes to stuff ballot boxes in three Philadelphia judicial races.
Still, some conservative advocacy groups have embraced Mr. Trump’s view, even going to court to block the expansion of absentee balloting during the pandemic. Republican-controlled legislatures in Louisiana and Oklahoma also have bridled at making voting easier. More legal battles ahead of the November election seem certain.
But in many other states, governments controlled by each of the political camps have moved in the other direction.
In lawsuits and elsewhere, voting-rights advocates and Democrats have taken aim at state rules on voting that they see as discriminatory. In Texas, a federal court ruled this week that a state regulation granting blanket absentee-ballot privileges to voters over 65 — a not-uncommon exception nationally — discriminated against younger voters.
Elsewhere, lawsuits have sought to expand a common exception allowing absentee voting by people too sick to go to the polls. The goal is to cover voters who fear catching the coronavirus while in line at a polling place. A number of states have adopted that view, ruling that voters who reasonably fear exposure to the virus have a right to vote remotely.
Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, said this week that the state would mail applications for absentee ballots to all 7.7 million registered voters for both the August primary and the November general election. The Legislature in deeply Republican South Carolina expanded absentee voting rights last week as a lawsuit pressing that cause lay before the state’s Supreme Court.
In West Virginia, the Republican secretary of state sent absentee ballot applications last month to each of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters; so far, nearly one in five has asked to vote absentee.
And in Kentucky, Republicans and Democrats agreed three weeks ago on an emergency plan that allows any voter to request an absentee ballot online and submit it by mail or at drop-off points for two weeks before the state’s June 23 primary. Michael G. Adams, the Republican secretary of state, told National Public Radio last week that he had been excoriated by his party for mailing postcards to voters explaining the new rules.
“The biggest challenge I have right now is making the concept of absentee voting less toxic for Republicans,” said Mr. Adams, who won election on a platform underscoring the threat of voter fraud.
Many political analysts say they find that odd. Until now, the decade-long crusade by Republicans against voter fraud has focused largely on requiring ID cards at polling places, supposedly to counter the distant possibility that an impersonator might make it into a voting booth. Studies show that fraud among absentee voters, while still rare, is more common — but that those voters have tended to be both older and white, a demographic that favors Republicans and Mr. Trump.
“Before 2018, Republicans loved mail balloting,” Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor and elections expert, said.
Mr. Trump said in March that Democrat-backed election proposals for expanded voting by mail would ensure that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Indeed, many Republicans and Democrats alike believe that expanding mail voting would increase Democratic turnout.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated May 20, 2020
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?
There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.
Their reasoning is that many more absentee ballots have traditionally been cast by wealthier and more educated voters and expanding voting by mail would add more votes by the low-income and minority voters who tend to lean Democratic and have a harder time getting to polls on Election Day.
But both academic studies and changing demographics throw that into question. Under Mr. Trump, the Republican base has shifted greatly toward white people with less education, while wealthier suburbanites have become increasingly Democratic. Studies in states that use voting by mail indicate it does not favor either party.
And in any case, mail voting is increasingly the norm everywhere: In 2016, nearly one in four voters cast absentee or mail ballots, twice the share in 2004.
Mr. McDonald and other experts argue that the greatest threat posed by a shift to voting by mail has nothing to do with fraud. Rather, they say, it is the very real prospect that a tsunami of mail votes could overwhelm both postal workers and election officials, creating a snarl in tallying and certifying votes that would allow a candidate to claim that late-counted votes were fraudulent.
Mr. Trump’s unfounded assertions that mail balloting in Michigan and Nevada encourage fraud suggest that he could be laying the ground for such a scenario, said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
“I think he’s trying to undermine confidence in elections,” Mr. Hasen said. “Maybe he’s not being conscious about what he’s doing. But he’s acting as if he has a plan.”