WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday escalated his assault against mail voting, falsely claiming that Michigan and Nevada were engaged in voter fraud and had acted illegally, and threatening to withhold federal funds to those states if they proceed in expanding vote-by-mail efforts.
The president inaccurately accused Michigan of sending mail ballots to its residents, as his aides later acknowledged, and he offered no basis for his claims of illegal actions by either Michigan or Nevada. The Michigan secretary of state has sent ballot applications — not the ballots themselves — to registered voters, a growing practice among election officials, including in states led by Republicans. In Nevada, where the Republican secretary of state declared the primary a nearly all-mail election, ballots are being sent to registered voters.
As most states largely abandon in-person voting because of health concerns over the coronavirus, Mr. Trump and many of his Republican allies have launched a series of false attacks to demonize mail voting as fraught with fraud and delivering an inherent advantage to Democratic candidates — despite there being scant evidence for either claim.
By day’s end Mr. Trump had corrected his tweet about Michigan, saying officials there had mailed applications, not ballots, though he continued to assert the secretary of state had acted illegally. He also backed off his threat to hold back funding, saying Michigan would find out “very soon if it’s necessary,” according to a pool report from the White House. “I don’t think it’s going to be necessary.”
Mr. Trump has often made threats about cutting off funding to states but has not always followed through. Aides compared his Wednesday morning tweets to previous attempts to withhold federal funds to sanctuary cities.
But his assault on the electoral process comes as Republicans are spending millions of dollars on broad efforts that could suppress voting in heavily Democratic areas in November, particularly in battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Republican-controlled legislatures and G.O.P. election lawyers around the country are trying to block or minimize widespread absentee voting and other measures that would make voting easier.
The efforts include recruiting volunteers to monitor polling places and challenge voters deemed suspicious, which the G.O.P. says are needed to prevent fraud but that Democrats say are intended to suppress turnout in a bid to aid Mr. Trump.
“Trump seems to think that anything that makes it easier for people to vote is going to hurt him,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, “and he’s consistently expressed the view that anything that makes it easier to vote leads to voter fraud when there is absolutely no evidence to support that claim.”
Mr. Trump’s first tweet Wednesday targeted Michigan, a critical swing state that he won narrowly in 2016. “Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” the president wrote. “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!”
An hour later he made a similar threat against Nevada, saying the state had created “a great Voter Fraud scenario” and adding, “If they do, ‘I think’ I can hold up funds to the State.”
His attacks continue a pattern of insinuations about voting fraud that cast doubt on the integrity of elections, which some Democrats worry are a prelude to potential efforts by Republicans to dispute the outcome in November if Mr. Trump loses. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., has suggested several times that he expects Mr. Trump to disrupt or even seek to delay the November election.
Michigan’s secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, quickly clarified on Wednesday that the state is not mailing ballots to all Michigan voters. On Wednesday, she began mailing ballot applications to all registered voters.
“I was notified about the tweet this morning and it caught me off guard because it, of course, was inaccurate,” Ms. Benson, a Democrat, said in an interview. “It is nothing different from what my Republican colleagues in other states are doing. It boggles my mind that this, which is completely within my authority, would in any way be seen as controversial.”
Ms. Benson said she had already spent $4.5 million to mail voters ballot applications using money from the federal CARES Act, which Congress passed to help states deal with the coronavirus. She had previously sent absentee ballot applications to all voters for the state’s local elections on May 5.
Mr. Trump’s outbursts come as the White House and his re-election campaign are confronting polls showing the president trailing Mr. Biden both nationally and in key swing states.
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, dodged questions about what was illegal about Michigan sending out ballot applications. “Illegality and legality of it, that’s a question for the campaign,” Ms. McEnany said.
Ms. McEnany said only that there was evidence and “bipartisan consensus on the fact that mass mail-in voting can lead to fraud.”
Late Wednesday, a campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, said: “President Trump is correct. There is no statutory authority for the secretary of state in Michigan to send absentee ballot applications to all voters. Existing case law in Michigan supports that conclusion as well.”
A Trump campaign official cited a 2008 Michigan case in which a judge said local clerks could not send absentee ballot applications to a limited universe of voters, a different set of circumstances. Michigan voters in 2018 passed a constitutional amendment expanding access to absentee voting. Anyone can now print and distribute absentee ballot applications, Ms. Benson said, and the form is available online. Her spokesman, Jake Rollow, said Mr. Murtaugh’s claim is “false.”
The president’s attack on Nevada is particularly confounding, given that the state’s effort to switch to a nearly all-mail election was made by Secretary of State Barbara K. Cegavske, a Republican. Democrats have sued Ms. Cegavske to block her effort to close nearly all of the state’s in-person polling places for the June 9 primary and mail ballots to all registered voters.
“If it has not become apparent yet, Donald Trump makes stuff up,” said Marc Elias, the Democratic elections lawyer who is suing Ms. Cegavske to require more in-person polling places to remain open. “So I don’t think he has a particular objection other than someone has told him that he is losing in Michigan and in Nevada, so today he decided to tweet about Michigan and Nevada.”
A spokeswoman for Ms. Cegavske said, “Nevada has many safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of an all-mail election.”
The president is scheduled to visit a Ford Motor plant that is manufacturing ventilators in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Thursday. This is his first trip to the state since January, and comes at a time when his campaign advisers are increasingly concerned about his chances there.
Mr. Trump’s tweets a day ahead of the trip were seen as unhelpful to boosting his political standing in a critical state, and his political opponents immediately pounced on them. William Kristol, a prominent conservative Trump critic, said on Twitter that his group, Defending Democracy Together, was buying air time in Michigan ahead of the president’s visit there, to air a new advertisement in defense of safe and secure voting.
Senior administration officials defended Mr. Trump’s deeper concerns about mail-in voting, even though the president himself voted by mail earlier this year in the Florida primary.
For his part, Mr. Trump has been concerned by reports on Fox News about potential fraud in Nevada’s vote-by-mail primary, and reports that thousands of ballots were being sent to inactive voters, aides said. They said Mr. Trump is not opposed to absentee ballots, but believes that vote-by-mail has been abused to hurt Republican candidates.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, states around the country have been expanding their vote-by-mail options. Georgia officials decided last month to send absentee ballot applications to nearly seven million voters, and on Wednesday the Republican secretary of state urged people to cast their votes by mail ahead of next month’s primary elections.
Municipal officials in Milwaukee have also said they will send vote-by-mail applications to registered voters in hopes of easing stress on in-person voting locations. In Wisconsin, the state’s bipartisan election commission is meeting on Wednesday to decide whether to mail ballot application forms to all registered voters and more than 200,000 people who are eligible to vote but not registered.
Some state Republican parties have been actively encouraging their supporters to vote by mail. In Pennsylvania, another state that recently passed a law to move to no-excuse vote by mail, Republicans set up an online portal that helps voters understand the new law.
Attacking mail voting carries significant risk for Mr. Trump, if Republicans avoid the system in November, said John Pudner, a conservative political operative, pointing out that it could decrease the vote in some key demographics.
“Just looking at the senior vote in many states, if there’s a falloff in that, if he loses a chunk of that and he loses Florida, he’s in big trouble,” Mr. Pudner said. Yet, he said, Mr. Trump’s repeated attacks on mail voting means “it tends to be harder for independent thinking in the party on it.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta.