On Ballot Harvesting, GOP May Have to Push Back

On Ballot Harvesting, GOP May Have to Push Back
AP Photo/Matt York
On Ballot Harvesting, GOP May Have to Push Back
AP Photo/Matt York
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When Democrats across the country recently condemned the “ballot harvesting” election fraud on display in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, Republicans who have spent years fighting the practice found themselves saying “I told you so.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez praised the North Carolina election board’s decision last week to throw out the results that delivered a win for Republican Mark Harris and mandate an election do-over to determine the true winner.

“Calling for a new election in #NC09 was the right decision,” Perez tweeted. “Americans shouldn’t have to wonder if their votes will be counted. We need to fight like hell to make sure this doesn’t happen again in #NC09 or anywhere else in our country.”

Republicans were less-than-impressed by Perez’s condemnation of ballot-harvesting fraud. That’s because ballot harvesting is illegal in North Carolina only because the GOP-controlled legislature outlawed it. Only close relatives or legal guardians can submit a ballot on behalf of a voter; all others risk being charged with a felony.

Most Republican efforts to address voter fraud focus on laws requiring in-person voting and photo IDs. Such voter-verification policies for years have spurred charges of racism from Democrats, who maintain that they are designed to suppress  the vote of minorities.

Democrats generally support efforts to expand mail-in voting and to legalize ballot harvesting – the practice in which organized workers or volunteers collect absentee ballots from voters and drop them off at a polling place or election office. They also have long argued that elections where mail-in ballots are heavily used usually go off without a hitch.

“For some people, this is a question of convenience and some others are more concerned about [ballot] security,” said Wendy Underhill, the director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has tracked ballot-collecting laws in all 50 states.

The ballot-harvesting practice has faced new scrutiny in recent months after Republican candidates in California saw their Election Day leads disintegrate as later-arriving Democratic votes were counted in the weeks following the 2018 midterms. Republicans across the country, including then-Speaker Paul Ryan, raised the specter that California’s expanded ballot-harvesting law was responsible. Ryan called the Golden State’s vote tallying system “bizarre” and something that “defies logic.”

In the North Carolina case, the roles were reversed. Harris, a Republican congressional candidate, used a political operative who was known for his illegal get-out-the-vote methods -- including collecting ballots from certain areas and discarding them -- to narrowly defeat Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out the Democrats’ situational  outrage over the practice.

“For years and years, every Republican who dared to call for common-sense safeguards for Americans’ ballots was demonized by Democrats and their allies,” he said. “We were hit with left-wing talking points insisting that voter fraud wasn’t real. That fraud just didn’t happen.”

“But I have noticed with interest that Democrats’ new focus on this practice has yet to extend to California – where it is a completely legal, common practice,” added McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

Arizona GOP Bans Ballot-Harvesting, Battles Dems in Court

For Robert Graham, who chaired the Arizona Republican Party from 2013 to early 2017, this issue is personal. He calls Perez’s condemnations of the North Carolina case “pure hypocrisy.”

Graham spent more than a year waging a legal battle with the DNC, as well as the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, over Arizona’s ballot-harvesting ban, which the GOP-majority state legislature passed in 2016. The law made it illegal for absentee voters to allow others to collect their completed ballots and turn them in on their behalf, with the exception of family members and caregivers.

Democrats filed suit, arguing the law was passed in an attempt to dilute minority voting power.

“Hillary and Bernie and the national Democratic Party all sued the state of Arizona to undo this,” Graham told RealClearPolitics. “My state attorney general was almost taking a pass on this fight, so the GOP state party had to act as an interested party. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work to ensure that our law prohibiting the practice would remain the law.”

DNC spokesman John Santos said Arizona Republicans have not shown any documented evidence of “widespread fraud” that would justify the blanket ban. 

“Voters of color, who often live in underserved communities, rely on ballot collecting to exercise their right to vote, and the ban is merely an attempt by Republicans in the state legislature to make it harder for voters of color to cast their ballot,” he said.

Santos called the case in North Carolina a “unique situation and an example of a blatant effort by the Republicans to commit a crime in order to win an election.”

“Democrats will always stand up against any efforts to undermine elections and prevent the voice of the people from being heard,” he added.

The issue is especially important in Arizona because the state relies heavily on mail-in voting. The Citizens Clean Elections Commission, a nonpartisan organization created to educate the public about Arizona campaign laws, estimates that about 80 percent of state voters choose to receive their ballot in the mail.

What happens during chain of custody of the mail-in ballot – from the time it is sent to a voter until the time it is turned in to be counted – is what concerns opponents of ballot harvesting.  They point to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate win over Republican Martha McSally after McSally’s election-night lead evaporated when the early, absentee and provisional ballots were counted over the next week.

Before the Arizona legislature passed the ballot-harvesting ban, Graham said there were several documented incidents that set off alarm bells. A couple of years ago, return envelopes for the mail-in ballots were transparent enough that anyone could tell whom someone voted for at the top of the ticket if the envelope was held up to the light, he said.

In one incident, he said that local authorities found thousands of filled-out ballots in a dumpster in the desert in Yuma. Another time, poll workers were not marking bags of hundreds of mass-collected ballots as provisional, and subject to signature verification, as state law requires.

During the Arizona court battle over the ballot-harvesting prohibition, witnesses testified about voter intimidation by ballot collectors, specifically in the state’s Vietnamese communities. It wasn’t an easy battle, Graham recalls. The Democrats, he said, had some of the most “high-octane attorneys on the planet” and their party spent roughly $2 million or more targeting the law. He estimates that Republicans spent about the same amount defending the law.

The legal challenge went through the Arizona courts – all the way to the Supreme Court, which suspended a lower court ruling that would have temporarily blocked the law while it was making its way through the courts. The case is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court again for a final determination.

California Republicans Pledge to Compete, Not Unilaterally Disarm

Unlike their counterparts in Arizona, California Republicans are outgunned in the state legislature where Democrats now hold supermajorities in both chambers. In 2016, the state legislature passed a law that allows anyone, including union and special interest workers, as well as campaign operatives, to collect and return ballots.

In Sacramento, Republican bills taking aim at the new law have gone nowhere, and unlike in Arizona, the state GOP hasn’t pursued what would be a lengthy legal challenge before any federal court could weigh in. Smarting in the aftermath of statewide losses, former California GOP Chairman Shawn Steel penned an op-ed in late November arguing that Democrats in the state have “systematically undermined” voter integrity laws over time by expanding vote-by-mail, instant “motor-voter” registrations and allowing voting for ex-felons.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has pushed back at Republican criticisms of the state’s voting practices.

“It is bizarre that Paul Ryan cannot grasp basic voting rights protections,” he told Politico after the election. “…Our elections in California are structured so that every eligible citizen can easily register, and every registered voter can easily cast their ballot.”

Like Steel, Jim Brulte, who served as chairman of the California Republican Party last cycle, also stopped short of claiming outright voter fraud. He agreed that  no hard data supports the argument that the state’s new ballot-harvesting law made the difference in the Democratic wins in the state. Instead, Brulte cited a combination of factors that gave Democrats a get-out-the-vote advantage in November.

“Ballot harvesting, like same-day registration, like motor-voter, is a law passed by Democrats because experience has shown that it tends to advantage them electorally, and a political party when it is in control in a state it tends to pass legislation that advantages them,” Brulte told RealClearPolitics.

In California, like many states, Republicans tend to vote early and by absentee ballot while Democrats tend to show up later, he said. Additionally, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to hand over their ballots for others to turn in, he said.

“In almost all the congressional and legislative races we lost, we knew the conclusion on election night or early the next morning – we knew that our lead was not enough to overcome the historic Democrat late voting,” he said.

Another California GOP operative, who requested anonymity, referred to ballot-harvesting programs as more prosaic get-out-the-vote efforts “on steroids.” The operative said Republicans could learn to compete on that level just as they have with the state’s absentee voter law, which Republican lawmakers in the state widely opposed.

“Some of our candidates had success with it [this cycle] but nowhere near the success [Democratic] candidates had,” the operative said, citing door-to-door ballot-collecting efforts by union workers.

“It’s all a part of local grassroots [get-out-the-vote] and it probably means more training for the county parties because the county parties are really the grassroots arm,” the operative said. “At some point, with a lot of hard work, maybe we’ll be able to crack the code and perform on ballot-harvesting just like we’ve performed before on mastering absentee balloting.”

Jessica Patterson, the California GOP’s new chairwoman, doesn’t want to leave anything to chance as she tries to rebuild after an election cycle in which Republican voter registrations fell to third-party status, behind Democrats and independents and Republicans suffered historic losses.

“We certainly need to do better. … We’re getting beat at [ballot harvesting], so the argument that we did it well, I mean, we just can’t make that argument,” Patterson told a local radio show in late February, the day after she was chosen to lead the party out from its abyss.

She said she would like to see the party expand its outreach on a micro-level to neighborhood gatherings where voters naturally share conservative values and those relationships can grow organically.

The key is building strong bonds and trust “so people get to a place where they feel comfortable giving up their ballot,” she said.

“It’s something that we’re going to have to do face-to-face; it’s going to be something that we have to do on a grassroots level – there’s no amount of paid efforts that we can do to change a mind [that’s as powerful] as a conservative, passionate person talking about values and ideas you agree with.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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