Michelle Obama's group features 31 Democratic and Republican mayors from around the U.S. — all pushing for broader voting access
Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaking at the United Center in Chicago on November 13, 2018, during her multi-city book tour.
| Credit: JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty

Michelle Obama hopes her biggest impact in the 2020 election will come at the polls: Not in pushing who Americans should vote for (although she’s previously promised to campaign for the Democratic presidential nominee), but by urging them to simply make their voice heard.

The former first lady, 56, became a voting activist ahead of the 2018 midterm elections when she launched her When We All Vote initiative and she is looking to elevate the group's impact on the upcoming 2020 elections. On Thursday, the group launched a new coalition of mayors from across the United States who will work together to create and promote ways for Americans to safely and securely their vote in November.

“Voting is bigger than any one party, one issue, one candidate, or one election,” Mrs. Obama told mayors and activists on a Zoom call Thursday afternoon. “We’ve got to strengthen our democracy from the bottom up and ensure that more Americans participate in every single election, from the local school board to Congress.”

On the organizing call, to which PEOPLE was given access, Mrs. Obama spoke with 31 Democratic and Republican mayors who are founding members of the "Civic Cities" plan.

The mother of two and bestselling author/activist, said the group will continue to push for safe voting policies, including online voter registration, early in-person voting, and vote-by-mail — which President Donald Trump has claimed in recent weeks contributes to voter fraud.

"No matter what party or ideology, we want everyone to participate, and we need your voices in this with us — and your constituents desperately need your leadership," Mrs. Obama told the local leaders on the call. "It's why I’m going to keep pushing to help get you what you need to run a safe and fair election."

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Elections Chief Inspector Mary Magdalen Moser runs a polling location in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in full hazmat gear as the Wisconsin primary kicks off despite the coronavirus pandemics on April 7, 2020.
| Credit: DEREK R. HENKLE/AFP via Getty
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A voter casts their ballot in a Democratic presidential primary election at the Hamilton High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 7.

Trump himself voted by mail as recently as March when he cast an absentee ballot in the Republican primary elections in Florida. But he has since gone on to try to discredit the method.

"Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they’re cheaters,” Trump told reporters ahead of Wisconsin's controversial state primary, which went on last month despite efforts to delay the vote because of safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. “The mail ballots are corrupt in my opinion."

Despite his own use of mail-in voting, Trump has threatened this week to "hold up" funds to Michigan and Nevada after he claimed, without evidence, that the states "illegally" sent ballots to voters this week. In reality, the states sent applications for voters to use to register for mail-in voting capabilities.

Michelle Obama
Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks during an Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, Illinois on October 29, 2019.
| Credit: Michelle Obama

Trump told reporters on Thursday morning that voting by mail is only acceptable if you are sick or if you "live in the White House."

"Now, if somebody has to mail it in because they’re sick or, by the way, because they live in the White House and they have to vote in Florida and they won’t be in Florida — if there’s a reason for it, that’s okay," Trump, 73, said. "If there’s a reason."

One gigantic reason looms amid the latest push for mail-in voting access: the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the nation's top voting experts told PEOPLE last month that the coronavirus pandemic poses an unprecedented threat to the November 3 election. Though the experts point out that the election is Constitutional and won't be delayed, it will likely hinder voter turnout as Americans worry about gathering publicly in light of the fast-spreading disease may opt to avoid voting booths out of concern for their own personal health.

“We don’t know what we don’t know," Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to the elections program at the bipartisan Democracy Fund Voice foundation, which focuses on adjusting the U.S. electoral system to face new challenges, told PEOPLE. "We’re hearing conflicting information on whether [the coronavirus] is going to come back in the fall, if it goes away at all, and so the issue is that the way in which the November election is conducted needs to be decided now.”

Some states have pushed to implement drive-up voting at local polling places, while others have sought to push for broader use of absentee-voting to give voters another option on how to cast their vote come November if there's still public concern about contracting the COVID-19 illness.

In the state's primary last month, Wisconsin Public Radio reported that more 1.2 million people requested absentee ballots amid worry about the pandemic. That was more than double the number of people who opted to do so in the state's 2018 midterms.

Only five U.S. states conduct their elections via mail-in voting and 16 states still require a reason (such as an illness or being out of state for work) for a voter to receive an absentee ballot.

Betsy Price, the Republican mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, told Mrs. Obama and her 30 mayoral peers on Thursday that voting by mail is a matter of safety, not politics.

“We want voting to be as safe as humanly possible," Price said. "During this pandemic, we have to take our bully pulpits and ramp up our voices because nobody knows their community better than mayors. Let’s get these voters out.  Voting is not a partisan issue, nor should it ever be. It does get there sometime, but we simply can’t let it — not in this critical election and this pandemic.”

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