US President Donald Trump yesterday escalated his campaign to discredit the integrity of mail balloting, threatening to "hold up" federal funding to Michigan and Nevada in response to the states' plans to increase voting by mail to reduce the public's exposure to the coronavirus.
Without evidence, Mr Trump called the two states' plans "illegal", and he incorrectly claimed that Michigan's "rogue" secretary of state is planning to mail ballots to all voters. The state is planning to send applications for mail-in ballots to all voters - not ballots themselves.
"This was done illegally and without authorisation by a rogue Secretary of State," Trump tweeted about Michigan. "I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!"
Mr Trump later corrected the error but did not retreat from his claim that both states are taking steps that will encourage voter fraud.
When asked for comment, spokespeople for the White House, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee did not offer evidence that state officials were breaking the law.
Speaking to reporters later at the White House, the president claimed without proof that mail-in ballots lead to "forgeries" and "thousands and thousands of fake ballots".
"I think just common sense would tell you that massive manipulation can take place," he said. "And you do have cases of fraudulent ballots where they actually print them and they give them to people to sign, maybe the same person signs them with different writing, different pens. A lot of things can happen."
The president's aggressive and unfounded rhetoric drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and voting-rights activists, who accused Mr Trump of intentionally sowing mistrust in US elections.
And his claims that absentee voting will encourage cheating are at odds with the activity of state and national Republican leaders, who are mounting aggressive field operations, including mass mailings of ballot applications, to encourage their voters to cast ballots by mail.
Republican officeholders in various states - including Nevada - are also backing expansions of absentee voting because of the pandemic.
Mr Trump's latest attacks show how voting access has become a major battleground in the 2020 presidential race, as both parties invest tens of millions of dollars into dozens of lawsuits and voter outreach across the country to try to shape how ballots will be cast amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Democratic strategists pointed to Mr Trump's tweets targeting battleground or Democratic-controlled states as evidence that he is trying to gain an edge in states that could decide the outcome in November. They noted that many Republican states are similarly expanding mail balloting, yet Mr Trump has not criticised them.
"They're doing this because they think it gives them some sort of political advantage," said Guy Cecil, a former aide to Hillary Clinton who leads the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action.
"They see what Trump's poll numbers are, and their philosophy is simple: 'If we can't win with the electorate we have, then we try to create an environment that gives us an electorate that we can win with.'"
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Mr Trump is simply trying to prevent voting fraud.
"The president is right to look at this," she told reporters.
"We want a free and fair election, and that's a fair concern."
Mr Trump has repeatedly railed against mail-in voting, asserting with scant evidence that it is subject to widespread fraud and has hurt Republicans in previous elections.
Multiple studies have shown that Republicans and Democrats both can benefit with increased mail-in voting. Cases of ballot fraud are rare. (© Washington Post)