Trump slams Michigan, Nevada for expanding voting by mail, but drops funding threat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Wednesday blasted plans to expand voting by mail in Michigan and Nevada and briefly threatened to withhold federal funding for the states, but dropped the warning after an avalanche of criticism from Democrats.

Trump, who has repeatedly expressed his opposition to mail-in voting, said the expansion in Michigan and Nevada - two states that could be pivotal in his Nov. 3 re-election bid - could lead to voter fraud.

Numerous studies have found little evidence of voter fraud connected to voting by mail. States have broad authority to set their own rules for voting.

Many states have pushed to expand vote-by-mail options as a safer alternative in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, sparking a growing partisan fight with Trump and his Republican allies.

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

Trump also threatened Nevada’s federal funding, saying the state’s move to expand voting by mail created “a great Voter Fraud scenario.”

Trump later walked back the threats on the unspecified funds, telling reporters at the White House “I don’t think it’s going to be necessary.” But he kept up his criticism of voting by mail as “a very dangerous thing.”

Democrats say mail-in voting is necessary to counter health risks from the coronavirus by helping to prevent crowds at polling places. Republicans say it is more susceptible to fraud since voters do not have to appear in person at a polling place.

Past studies by election researchers have shown neither party has an advantage in states with a history of mail balloting and where officials automatically mail ballots to all registered voters.

In Michigan, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said on Tuesday that all 7.7 million voters would receive absentee ballot applications before the Aug. 4 state primaries and the November general election so no one “has to choose between their health and their right to vote.”

Nevada, where the state official responsible for elections is a Republican, has made its June 9 state primaries an all-mail election and sent absentee ballots to registered voters.

Benson said on Twitter that Republican counterparts in Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska and West Virginia also were sending absentee ballot applications to voters.

“Every Michigan registered voter has a right to vote by mail. I have the authority & responsibility to make sure that they know how to exercise this right,” she wrote.

Nevada Democrats, who have sued to try to force Republican officials to open more in-person polling places and give voters more options, said Trump’s tweets were designed to discourage voter turnout.

“The president’s tweet is just another tactic in the GOP’s handbook of voter suppression,” Nevada State Democratic Party spokeswoman Molly Forgey said.

Republicans blocked a move by Wisconsin’s Democratic governor to make last month’s primary an all-mail election amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Reporting by John Whitesides; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert and Jeff Mason; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Shumaker