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Trump threatens Michigan funding over Benson absentee application plan

President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funding for Michigan after Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said she would send all 7.7 million registered voters in the state applications to vote by mail in the August and November elections. 

Trump incorrectly tweeted Wednesday morning that Benson planned to send absentee ballots — not applications — to Michigan voters. 

“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State,” he wrote. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

In a following tweet, he tagged Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget Russ Vought, chief of staff Mark Meadows and the U.S. Treasury Department. 

Secretary of State spokesperson Jake Rollow wrote in a statement that Trump’s tweet is “false” and that “applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations. Just like them, we have full authority to mail applications to ensure voters know they have the right to vote safely by mail.”

Benson also tweeted that her “GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia” have also sent out applications for absentee ballots. 

Speaking to reporters later Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said that "to see rhetoric like this" from Trump "is disheartening and may show you there is a lack of understanding" about Benson's actions.

Trump’s threat comes as Michigan faces a massive $6.2 billion budget shortfall over the next 18 months due to lowered state revenues and increased spending related to the pandemic. 

The state already received $3 billion in funding from the federal government through the CARES Act that was passed in March, but it’s limited to being used for new COVID-19-related expenses that weren’t already accounted for in the existing budget. 

State officials have said they’re hoping the federal government can provide more funding or change the requirements for how the existing money can be spent. Without major changes, the state will already face dramatic budget cuts or tax increases to make up the difference. 

Benson announced Tuesday that the Department of State would be sending out absentee ballot applications to all Michigan registered voters in the August and November elections due to concerns over in-person voting due to the coronavirus. The plan will cost $4.5 million, which will be taken from $11.2 million in additional CARES Act money allocated to the state for elections. 

Trump has publicly fought efforts to expand access to mail-in voting, raising concerns that the practice would hurt Republicans at the ballot box and lead to voter fraud, though experts say voter fraud is incredibly rare

State Republicans also criticized the move Tuesday. Former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, now a Republican state senator and chair of the Senate Elections Committee, said the decision “seems political.”

“I do question how and why this specific mailing was done right now. Local clerks are the ones who have always handled these requests, not the secretary of state,” Johnson said in a statement. 

“Like Gov. Whitmer, Secretary Benson seems to be taking unilateral actions with no input and questionable motives — and that is very troubling.”

House Elections and Ethics Committee chair Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, told the Associated Press that the $4.5 million would have been better used for personal protection equipment for election workers, for sanitation and protective equipment at polling places, and on machines for quickly processing absentee ballots.

Michigan voters can already vote by mail for any reason due to a successful 2018 ballot initiative that put the right to no-reason absentee voting in the state constitution. Michigan is one of 34 states that allow no-reason absentee voting; another five conduct all their elections by mail. 

A report from the Pew Research Center in late April found that 52 percent of people support conducting all elections by mail while 70 percent said they favored allowing any voter to vote by mail if they want to.

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