The bill was supposed to be uncontroversial, and at first, it was. Early this year, Michigan advanced a bipartisan measure to let election officials take absentee ballots out of their mailing envelopes — but not to unseal the ballots or count them — the day before Election Day.
It was the kind of small, bureaucratic switch that could make the difference between timely results in this fall’s presidential election and chaos. And it was moving steadily, with Republican support, through Michigan’s GOP-led Senate.
Then, President Donald Trump made it clear that he preferred chaos.
“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” he tweeted in May. Since then, the bill has barely budged.
The loss of momentum in Michigan follows a pattern that voting rights advocates say they are seeing in key swing states: As Trump has worked furiously to undermine mail-in voting, rank-and-file Republicans, who were previously serious about adapting elections amid the coronavirus pandemic, have fallen in line to help him.
“We were making good progress. And then somebody started tweeting about mail-in voting and made it partisan,” said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a nonpartisan group helping states prepare for Election Day. “I’m very concerned about the states that haven’t adjusted their laws to process the huge number of absentee ballots we’re expecting.”
Michigan is just one example. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have signaled that they won’t agree to speed up absentee ballot counting without also adding new voter restrictions. In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled state legislature has altogether ignored calls to prepare for a tidal wave of mail-in ballots.
All three are swing states that could determine the presidential race. And in all three states, laws bar officials from opening mail-in ballots before Election Day, making it virtually impossible to report accurate results on election night — a delay that Trump has said he won’t abide: “Must know Election results on the night of the Election, not days, months, or even years later!”
For Trump, the attack on absentee voting serves a dual purpose. Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden are twice as likely as Trump supporters to say they plan to vote by mail, so Trump’s campaign has launched a barrage of lawsuits to stop states from expanding access to mail-in voting.
Though Trump can’t stop absentee voting entirely, he can attack its legitimacy and, potentially, lay the groundwork to declare himself the winner before all votes are counted. Because more Republicans will likely vote in person, early returns may show Trump with a large lead until officials can tally a flood of absentee ballots. Democrats are already preparing for a legal brawl to see that every vote is counted.
“We were making good progress. And then somebody started tweeting.”
State lawmakers could permit their states to start tallying absentee ballots before Election Day. About a dozen states, all over the ideological map, already allow election officials to begin counting mail-in ballots before Election Day (with the results kept a secret). Many other states allow officials to open ballots, verify voters’ signatures or load them into counting machines to be turned on as soon as the polls close on Election Day.
But thanks to Trump, the kinds of common-sense fixes that could help election officials handle an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots have suddenly become stalled or nonstarters.
“Their legislatures have refused to act, and they’re putting their election officials in a terrible position,” McReynolds said. “That is the reason why there’s going to be delayed results.”
Some states have already struggled with delays. In Michigan’s August primary, results from the city of Detroit were delayed for days by the U.S. Postal Service slowdown, staffing shortages caused by the pandemic and rules that prevented any ballot processing before Election Day.
In the general election, Michigan officials are anticipating that 3 million or more voters will mail in their ballots rather than vote in person.
Few doubt that Trump’s stance is what has cowed the state’s Republicans out of passing much-needed reforms.
“It was moving right along,” said a lobbyist working on the bill who asked for anonymity to discuss lawmakers’ private conversations. “Now when I sit down with Republican members, they tell me, ‘I had so-and-so, the attorney for the state party, telling me this is not good legislation.’”
The sponsor of the bill, a Republican state senator and Michigan’s former secretary of state, has stopped defending it “vociferously,” the lobbyist added. “That happened to coincide with the president talking about mail-in voting.”
State Sen. Ruth Johnson, the bill’s sponsor, denies that partisanship or Trump’s input has delayed the bill. But she would not say if her party leader, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, had committed to bringing it to the floor for a vote — only that she had urged him to make it a priority. (Shirkey did not respond to a request for comment.)
A bipartisan group of county clerks, the officials who oversee the state’s election, disagree that partisanship plays no role. Trump’s public campaign “definitely has slowed down the ability to make the change,” said Chris Swope, the president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. “It does feel more partisan now. And yet it’s what the voters want, overwhelmingly,” added Swope, whose group supports the bill. (In 2018, Michigan voters approved no-excuse absentee voting by a margin of 2-to-1.)
“Republicans ... are not motivated to want to do anything about this because chaos has been part of Donald Trump’s operating procedure.”
Pennsylvania, too, is at partisan loggerheads over how to manage a huge wave of absentee ballots.
Democrats and many of the state’s election officials have called for state legislators, who are meeting this week, to change the law so that election officials can begin to process ballots days or weeks before Election Day. That could mean simply opening the envelopes in which ballots arrive without unsealing the ballots, or opening the ballots and tallying the votes without publicly reporting the results.
But Pennsylvania Republicans have said that tallying votes before Election Day will not be allowed and that the legislature should get rid of the absentee ballot dropboxes some counties have erected as an alternative to the postal service. A lawsuit filed by the Trump campaign this summer is seeking the exact same thing.
“The dynamic around vote-by-mail just completely changed once Donald Trump began to demonize it,” said state Rep. Kevin Boyle, the Democratic chairman of the Pennsylvania House’s State Government Committee.
Only a year ago, Boyle pointed out, nearly every Republican in the statehouse joined Democrats in expanding the option of no-excuse absentee voting to most Pennsylvania voters. “It was not a partisan issue whatsoever,” he said. “Republicans did not express any reticence, didn’t express any misgivings that this was somehow beneficial to Democrats or it was corrupt or would be used for corrupt purposes, until now.”
Boyle’s Republican counterpart on the committee did not respond to an interview request.
“I personally fear Trump and his supporters falsely claiming that there would be fraud going on in those Democratic areas,” Boyle said. “The Republicans are aware of this issue. I think they are not motivated to want to do anything about this because chaos has been part of Donald Trump’s operating procedure. And the inability of the legislature to address this clear and present danger only increases the chance of chaos.”
Some swing states are making progress. In Republican-held Georgia, the National Vote at Home Institute is working with the secretary of state and the legislature and has achieved what McReynolds called “baby steps.” The state has made it easier for voters to apply online to vote absentee and to track their ballots through the mail. The legislature is now out of session but lawmakers are drawing up a list of reforms that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp could make himself.
And in Michigan, the clerks responsible for counting every vote are still hopeful that the legislature will expand their window.
“We feel this is necessary, and even with this change, we’ve still got a huge task ahead of us,” Swope said. “If I can only get an extra day, I’ll take an extra day.”