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Trump’s tweet threatens federal money for Nevada over mail voting

Updated May 20, 2020 - 3:28 pm

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from Nevada for sending out “illegal vote by mail ballots” to promote social distancing in response to the coronavirus outbreak and “creating a great voter fraud scenario.”

Contrary to the president’s assertion, however, absentee voting by mail is authorized by Nevada law. That law also allows local officials to designate any or all precincts to be mail-only, with the approval of the secretary of state.

Also, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du on April 3o rejected an application for a restraining order against the mail election premised on similar grounds.

“The court finds that defendants’ interests in protecting the health and safety of Nevada’s voters and to safeguard the voting franchise in light of the COVID-19 pandemic far outweigh any burden on plaintiffs’ right to vote, particularly when that burden is premised on a speculative claim of voter fraud resulting in dilution of votes,” Du ruled.

The judge added later that the claim of voter fraud “is without any factual basis.”

State officials react

In response to Trump’s tweet, Gov. Steve Sisolak replied with a pair of tweets of his own.

“Nevada is widely recognized as being a national leader in election administration, and we will continue to support the safest, most accessible election possible under these unprecedented circumstances,” the governor wrote. “For the President to threaten federal funding in the midst of a pandemic over a state exercising its authority to run elections in a safe and legal manner is inappropriate and outrageous.”

And Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske’s office released a statement calling the switch to mail-in ballots “necessary and prudent.”

“In March 2020, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and following state and federal guidance and emergency directives, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, in partnership with Nevada’s 17 county election officials, made the necessary and prudent decision to conduct the 2020 primary election using mail-in ballots,” the statement reads. “The decision, which was not made lightly, both ensured the primary election could move forward as scheduled and provided a way to protect the health and safety of voters and election workers in Nevada.”

The statement notes that mail balloting has been used for more than a century in Nevada for people including military members, and that all counties have established “safe and secure” mail-in voting procedures.

“Nevada has many safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of an all-mail election, including signature requirements and verification processes, preprinted ballot return envelopes, barcode tracking and laws against ballot harvesting,” the statement concludes. “Voters concerned with mailing in their ballot may drop off their ballot at any designated drop-off location in their county.”

More confusion than clarity

Trump’s cryptic tweet brought more confusion than clarity for many.

“I find it impossible to comment on this tweet,” Washington election lawyer Jan Baran responded to a Review-Journal query. “I have no idea what Trump means, and perhaps he doesn’t either. Withhold which funds? How much? On what basis can funds be withheld if they have been authorized and appropriated by Congress?”

Can the president even do that? “He can do it and he can lose in court,” answered Allison Hayward, an election lawyer who was born and raised in Las Vegas and now lives in California.

States run elections, including blended local, state and federal elections, Hayward explained, “subject to any laws Congress would pass.” There is no federal law against mail-in voting.

It was just after 6 a.m. in Carson City on Wednesday when the tweet was posted, and thousands of Nevadans who received ballots in the mail already have begun to vote.

“The idea that Trump would threaten states for making it easier for folks to vote during a pandemic is simply un-American,” said Sam Berger of the Center for American Progress. “Voting by mail safely shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

Trump made a similar tweet about Michigan’s mail ballots earlier in the morning.

“What he’s worried about is the general election. The real story here is Donald Trump is very concerned about the people in Nevada and Michigan voting,” added Berger, who sees the tweet as “a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength.”

Asked about what funds may be eliminated for Nevada as a result of election concerns, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany replied: “I won’t get into exactly what the funding considerations are. I would note that (the president’s) tweets were meant to alert (Treasury) Secretary (Stephen) Mnuchin and (Acting Office of Management and Budget Director) Mr. (Russell) Vought, the head of OMB, about his concerns about trillions of dollars going to these states.”

Although the president’s tweet concerned government funds and tagged two government officials, McEnany referred further questions to the president’s reelection campaign.

Battles over mail ballots

In one morning, Trump inserted himself into a battle being waged in the courts and in the media between the two parties more focused on November than the June 9 primary.

Nevada Democrats had gone to court to press Cegavske, the only Republican to hold statewide office, to mail ballots to inactive voters. Alone among Nevada’s 17 counties, Clark County elected to do so.

Republicans have contended that the 200,000 ballots sent to inactive voters in Clark County enable voter fraud. The state GOP has flooded social media with photos of ballots dumped in trash bins and clogging mailboxes.

Veteran U.S. Postal Service carrier Jenny Trobiani told the Review-Journal she had never seen anything like the influx of absentee ballots that were “no good.”

“The president is right, Democrats will stop at nothing to abuse this pandemic in order to re-engineer our elections in a way that invites fraud and weakens voter confidence,” Trump’s Nevada campaign spokesman Keith Schipper responded.

State Republicans also have objected to what they see as Democrats’ attempts to relax signature verification and the state ban on vote harvesting. (No local officials have agreed to relax signature-matching requirements, however. Matching signatures on ballot envelopes with signatures in election databases is a key tool to thwart voter fraud.)

Voter suppression

Nevada Democrats spokeswoman Molly Forgey told the Review-Journal she believes Trump’s goal is “voter suppression, as well as casting doubt on the integrity of our elections.”

“Plain and simple, sending a ballot to every registered voter is the law. The president’s tweet is just another tactic in the GOP’s handbook of voter suppression,” Forgey said.

Forgey also noted that Democrats pushed for more in-person polling locations to avoid long lines that could spread the virus. Clark County will have three such locations available on June 9.

Trump’s tweet had observers trying to figure out which funds Trump was threatening to withhold — all federal funds (Hayward’s guess), emergency funds (Politico’s guess) or a combination of the two. A third possibility: This was an empty threat with no likely follow-up.

A senior administration official told the Review-Journal that no decisions have been made and policy discussions are ongoing, but the president targeted “waste, fraud and abuse” for spending cuts.

“Democrats are in the midst of calling for a $3 trillion package to bail out states for often mismanaging their finances; the president was noting his serious concerns about the decisions being made by these particular states,” the official added.

Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel asked Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford in a letter to investigate whether Clark County violated election law by sending ballots to “hundreds of thousands of persons the state has good reason to believe no longer live at their last voting address.”

The Constitution and safety

“President Trump is threatening to harm Nevadans because our Republican secretary of state is making it easier for them to vote,” said Dina Titus, D-Nev. “We have a president who doesn’t care about the Constitution or apparently the safety of Nevadans. President Trump will do anything to distract the public from his slow and incompetent response to this pandemic.”

“It’s unconscionable that the president would threaten to withhold funds from our state that would save lives and livelihoods during this time of crisis,” responded Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. “Access to the ballot box should never be threatened for partisan gain.”

But former Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is a co-chairman of Trump’s Nevada reelection effort, disagreed.

“At a time when thousands of ballots are turning up in apartments and trash cans because of the shady Democratic shenanigans, it is rich that it takes a president’s tweet to bring focus to the real risk of voter fraud,” Laxalt said.

Trump lost Nevada to Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points in 2016. In 2018, Democrats swept every statewide office in Nevada except secretary of state. Nonetheless, the Trump campaign frequently argues it can turn the state around in 2020.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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