WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has castigated states for several months for moving to expand mail-in voting as the worsening coronavirus pandemic has made voters wary of venturing to the polls to cast their ballots. He has warned, without evidence, that voting by mail will lead to widespread voter fraud.
On Tuesday, Trump singled out Florida as an exception, tweeting that his supporters there should request an absentee ballot and vote by mail because the election system in the Republican-run battleground state is "Safe and Secure, Tried and True."
Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail! #MAGA
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 4, 2020
Florida has taken aggressive steps to safeguard the integrity of absentee votes, which are only sent out to eligible voters who request one. After the 2018 election that featured testy recount battles in whisker-thin races for governor and U.S. Senate, the state adopted stricter rules on signature and verification rules, as well as speeding up the process for counting absentee ballots.
"We're further along in the vote-by-mail process than other states that are just jumping into it this election cycle," said Susan MacManus, University of South Florida Distinguished University Professor Emerita in political science. "Florida is definitely ahead of the country."
Most political pundits agree Trump needs to capture Florida if he has any chance of winning re-election. And winning Florida requires at least performing solidly with absentee voters, a tough assignment for Republicans when the president continually rips mail voting as fraudulent and corrupt, said University of Florida Political Scientist Michael McDonald, an expert on mail voting.
"The Trump campaign knows that this is hurting them and the message finally got through to the president that his rhetoric on mail balloting, at least within Florida, is hurting his re-election chances," he said.
With its large contingent of seniors and a population that's very transient, Florida has long encouraged mail-in voting. In 2016, 29% of voters mailed in their ballot. In 2018, that rose to 32%. Given the pandemic's impact, McDonald estimates up to half the state voters might mail in their ballot.
So far, Democrats have a sizable advantage.
Four years ago, Democrats requested 5,732 more absentee ballots than Republicans did though Republicans ended up casting 58,244 more, according to McDonald. Through Tuesday, Democrats had requested nearly 600,000 more – 1.9 million vs. 1.3 million – state election figures show.
As they watched the opposition embrace mail-in-voting, key Republicans led by Gov. Ron DeSantis have urged Trump to publicly encourage his supporters to do so as well given the importance of the Sunshine State in November, MacManus said.
"He was getting a lot of pressure from not only the governor but from a lot of Republicans across the state," she said. "They were complaining, knowing that his characterization of vote-by-mail was not accurate for Florida."
Asked at a White House news conference Tuesday afternoon about his tweet, Trump said he has "total confidence" in the Florida's ability to administer mail ballots in a secure fashion.
"Florida's different from other states. Florida's been working on this for years ... They've really got a great system of absentee ballots," he said. "If you mail in your ballot in Florida, it's going to matter."
Trump may turn out to be one of those absentee voters. Last year, he declared he was moving from his home base of New York to Florida, where he owns the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach.
Republicans are lagging in absentee requests in other swing states as well, McDonald said. As of Tuesday, three times as many Democrats in North Carolina had requested mail ballots as Republicans, he tweeted.
And GOP leaders in the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are echoing similar concerns as those in Florida.
"What the president is doing when he keeps saying that this mail-in balloting thing is fraudulent, he's scaring our own voters from using a legit way to cast your ballot," said Rohn Bishop, the GOP chairman in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin. "We're kind of hurting ourselves, and I don't think that's the wisest way to go."
The president last week floated the idea of delaying the general election over his concerns of expanded mail-in voting, a decision that would require approval from Congress and was immediately dismissed by congressional Republicans and Democrats.
Trump has argued that the U.S. Postal Service is not equipped to handle a surge in mail-in ballots and said a New York congressional primary race held in June should be invalidated as election officials have yet to determine a winner.
On Monday, the president said his administration plans to sue Nevada to stop a just-passed bill guaranteeing mail-in ballots to all active voters.
One analysis from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice found only 491 cases of absentee voter fraud out of billions of votes cast across all U.S. elections from 2000 to 2012.
Prior to the pandemic, five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – mailed ballots to registered voters whether or not they requested one. California recently decided it will send ballots to all voters as well. Nevada's decision to follow suit means there are seven states following that protocol.
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian, Joey Garrison
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump backtracks on mail-in vote criticism, says Florida is an exception