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As Election Day approaches, Trump and Michigan GOP now push absentee voting

On the last night of the Democratic National Convention Thursday, some of Michigan’s leading Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, took to Zoom with one ask for Biden voters: Cast an absentee ballot this fall. 

“Election Day starts on September 24” when voters can begin voting by mail, Peters said. 

But the Democratic presidential campaign isn’t the only one now promoting mail-in voting. President Trump, who has been a vocal critic of the practice this cycle, has also recently pivoted to promote it, releasing digital ads saying “absentee ballots are GOOD.”

The change is indicative of the important role mail-in voting is likely to play in the November general election, when the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is expected to complicate in-person voting. 

Michigan voters approved a series of new voting rights in 2018, including the right to vote absentee for no reason. Elections earlier this year show voters are embracing the practice: A record-breaking 1.6 million people voted absentee in the state’s August primary election, beating out the previous record of 1.3 million in the 2016 November general election when Trump won Michigan over Democrat Hillary Clinton on his way to the White House. 

In the lead-up to that election as well, he was vocally opposed to voting by mail, calling it “rigged” and “bad, dishonest and slow,” though he distinguished it from absentee voting, which is virtually synonymous

That messaging seemed to resonate with Republican voters but not with Democrats: Michigan counties that voted heavily for Trump in 2016 were less likely than others to vote by mail in the August primary. A similar pattern repeated nationwide, with local GOP chapters raising the alarm that the president’s distaste for mail-in voting could impact Republican turnout. 

Now, the Trump campaign is changing its tune, running digital ads promoting the practice even as the president continues to assail mail-in voting online. 

The Michigan GOP this week retweeted a Trump campaign post that encouraged voters to request absentee ballots and showed Trump filling out his ballot for Tuesday's congressional primary in Florida. 

The Trump campaign paid for similar Facebook ads in Florida, telling voters there that "absentee ballots are GOOD" and urging them to "get your application and send in your absentee ballot IMMEDIATELY."

"You have to work to get [absentee ballots], you have to make sure everything is perfect and you send them in,” Trump says in the video. 

“Very little can go wrong. Absentee ballots are good, universal mail-ins when you get inundated with these things are bad and will lead to terrible things including voter fraud."

Chris Gustafson, the Trump campaign’s Michigan spokesperson, said the president has always been supportive of mail-in voting — it’s universal mail-in voting that he thinks is fraudulent.

“Absentee voting does include mail-in voting but it's not exactly the same thing in that you have to request a ballot. What we oppose is universal mail-in voting, where ballots themselves are delivered without being requested,” Gustafson said. “We want to get our voters to the polls as effectively as possible and absentee voting is one of those avenues.”

Under a universal mail-in voting system, ballots are automatically sent out to registered voters to be returned by mail or dropbox. Only nine states and Washington, D.C. — not including Michigan — are planning to conduct universal mail-in elections in November, and none of them are swing states expected to determine the results of the presidential election. 

While Trump attacked Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson for mailing out absentee ballot applications for the Aug. 4 primary here, "he's always encouraged absentee voting," argued Michigan GOP spokesman Tony Zammit.

Zammit said the Michigan GOP will be working to "provide that option" to Republican voters across the state.

"There will be mailers sent," he said. "We will be actively encouraging people to register to vote [absentee] if that's how they feel most comfortable."

The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee have also created an absentee ballot application page on their official websites.

Joe Biden’s campaign has also launched an effort to promote absentee voting that began on Thursday, when voters could begin requesting mail-in ballots for the November general election. 

In addition to Gilchrist and Peters, Democratic leaders Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Andy Levin have released promotional material or conducted local television interviews pushing voters to choose to vote by mail. 

“The only way we can [beat Donald Trump] is if Michigan gets out and votes,” Biden’s Michigan campaign director Eric Hyers told Bridge via email. “And that starts today — we need every Michigander to request their absentee ballot today so we can elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

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