Illegal Ballot Harvesting a Looming Issue in Arizona
PHOENIX – Republican candidate Martha McSally beat Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in last year’s election to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. At least McSally won on election night. We all know what happened: Over the next week hundreds of thousands of early, absentee, and provisional ballots were reviewed, contested, and counted -- and at the end of it all Arizonans found out that Sinema had won.
The same thing happened in several down-ballot races. Of particular concern was the race for secretary of state in which Republican Steve Gaynor, who had promised to focus on election integrity, was ahead by 40,000 votes on election night only to lose by 20,252 votes when the final count was certified.
The pervasiveness of this phenomena raised alarms among Republicans, who wound up on the losing end of all the races that swung from one party to the other between election night and the final certified count that came a week or more later. How could this happen? Was it legitimate or is there a real reason for concern over the integrity of the election? Contributing to the suspicion is not only the lead changes, but the substantial amount of time between Election Day and the certification of the vote. Most people understand intuitively that the more time that elapses the more opportunity there is for cheating.
The actions of Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Flores during the ballot count were seen by many observers, including the Arizona Republican Party, as suspect. His office oversees elections in Arizona’s most populous county and he is known as an intensely partisan Democrat. Think of him as Arizona’s version of Brenda Snipes, the Broward County supervisor of elections who was forced to resign in disgrace after Florida’s results were nearly thrown into chaos after the last election.
Just as Snipes was defiant when confronted with evidence of wrongdoing by her office, Fontes told a voter who complained about long lines on Facebook to “go f---” himself. So Fontes was sued for the “premeditated destruction of evidence” and for ignoring or fudging the signature verification process for early ballots, which accounted for roughly 80 percent of all votes in 2018. That’s nearly 2 million unsecured ballots. No wonder so many Arizonans were concerned. Yet, the Arizona Republican Party took no substantial action -- to the consternation of Republican voters who continue to have unanswered questions about the legitimacy of the certified results.
Why has the Arizona GOP, like party officials across the country, been uncommonly timid about defending the integrity of our elections? The reason is obvious. When Republicans talk about election integrity, Democrats and their media allies immediately yell “racism” and “voter suppression.” These strong-arm tactics seem to be working: Republicans have largely been cowed into silence. But they can’t afford to be.
We live in an age of early voting and ballot harvesting and if Republicans truly care about constitutional self-government and about maintaining confidence in the elections upon which our system depends – not to mention winning those elections -- they need to take action. And they need to develop thicker skins and better arguments.
They’re going to be called racists, fascists, and whatever else the left thinks will get them to shut up. But that’s going to happen anyway so they should factor it out of their thinking. Republicans must explain to the public that the system is broken and particularly vulnerable to fraud, which hurts everyone by devaluing their vote and making a mockery of our elections. When even the appearance of fraud is allowed to exist unchallenged, it undermines trust in elections, which in turn alienates people from government and leads to social and political instability.
There are two big problems. The first is the system of early voting. In Arizona, the vast majority of votes are cast before Election Day, some of them as much as 27 days early. That’s a dumb system. Among other drawbacks, it means a large percentage of voters are voting on incomplete information. Candidates have not had time to make their case. That’s simply not right.
If voting is going to mean anything, voters need to have time to hear the candidates make their case in full and then make a thoughtful decision. Compressing the process leads to distorted outcomes. For example, in the 2016 presidential primary, we saw many early votes cast for candidates who were no longer running on Election Day. That can have a material impact on the outcome of races and distorts the real will of the electorate. The other problem is that with millions of ballots unsecured – out in the wild, so to speak – for weeks in advance of the election, there is significant opportunity for tampering.
Ballot harvesting is a related problem. This is the practice by which activist groups use publicly available lists of people who have requested early or absentee ballots and then go door-to-door collecting their ballots to be turned in at a polling place. Common sense tells us that letting activists get their hands on tens or hundreds of thousands of raw ballots is asking for trouble.
Ballot harvesting creates the opportunity and the incentive for the activists involved to intimidate voters, steal, alter, and even destroy ballots. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which an activist group from Party A targets voters registered in Party B and then destroys a percentage of the ballots they collect.
The situation in North Carolina, where Republican Mark Harris’ election has been called into question over ballot harvesting, demonstrates not only the peril, but that this should be a bipartisan issue. Both parties have an interest in clean elections.
Yet ballot harvesting is legal in California and Democrats are pushing to expand the practice to other states. They are claiming it is a service to voters. It’s really a service to interest groups intent on influencing, or even manipulating, election results. But Republicans are afraid to talk about it for what it is – a sellout of voters interests to activist groups. And in Arizona, which borders California, there have been allegations that illegal ballot harvesting took place in 2018.
So far, at least here in Arizona, the governor and state attorney general -- both Republicans -- are either uninterested in this issue, or afraid of it. But Arizona will be a competitive, must-win state for Republicans in 2020 so they need to address it quickly. The presidency and a Republican majority in the Senate hang in the balance while they sleepwalk past a crisis in the making.