WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has urged residents of North Carolina to try to vote twice in the Nov. 3 election, once by mail and once in person, causing a furor for appearing to openly urge a potential act of voter fraud.
“Let them send it in and let them go vote,” Trump said in an interview on Wednesday with WECT-TV in Wilmington, North Carolina. “And if the system is as good as they say it is then obviously they won’t be able to vote” in person.
Trump has repeatedly asserted, without evidence, that mail-in voting – expanded by some states because of the coronavirus pandemic – would increase fraud and disrupt the November election, although experts say voter fraud of any kind is extremely rare in the United States.
Voting more than once in an election is illegal and in some states, including North Carolina, it is a felony not only to vote more than once but also to induce another to do so. The North Carolina State Board of Elections had no immediate comment on Trump’s remarks.
After his comments raised eyebrows and the ire of Democrats, Trump’s campaign and the White House said Trump was not telling people to vote twice.
“The president is not suggesting anyone do anything unlawful,” White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News Channel on Thursday. “What he said very clearly there is make sure your vote is tabulated and if it is not then vote.”
Trump, a Republican, campaigned on Wednesday in North Carolina, known as a battleground state because its population can swing either to Republicans or Democrats and play a decisive role in presidential elections.
Ballots are due to be mailed in North Carolina on Friday.
The state’s Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, responded on Twitter, writing that Trump, a Republican, had “outrageously encouraged” North Carolinians “to break the law in order to help him sow chaos in our election.”
Stein wrote: “Make sure you vote, but do NOT vote twice! I will do everything in my power to make sure the will of the people is upheld in November.”
National opinion polls show Trump, 74, trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden, 77, the vice president under former President Barack Obama. Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to suppress the vote to help their side.
A record number of mail-in ballots are expected this year as people seek to avoid crowded polling places amid COVID-19.
Experts have cautioned such a surge will mean a winner may not be clear on election night given the time it will take to count and verify all the ballots. Nearly one in four voters cast presidential ballots by mail in 2016.
Reporting by Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey, James Oliphant, Kanishka Singh and Ann Maria Shibu; Editing by Howard Goller