Ballot Harvesting Divide Persists Amid Elections Debate

Ballot Harvesting Divide Persists Amid Elections Debate
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Ballot Harvesting Divide Persists Amid Elections Debate
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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During last week’s fierce partisan debate over House Democrats’ campaign finance/elections and ethics overhaul, there was one thing Republicans and Democrats appeared to agree on:  the dearth of information about ballot harvesting – the controversial practice of campaign workers, union members, and volunteers collecting mail-in ballots from voters and delivering them to election officials to be counted – and its impact on elections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Democratic measure, which was designed to make voting easier and which passed on a party-line vote, for not addressing “sketchy” ballot harvesting practices. The GOP leader pointed to the fraud uncovered in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, which both Democrats and Republicans have condemned.

It was illegal to collect absentee ballots in North Carolina because Republicans passed a law barring the practice. But some form of ballot harvesting takes place in 19 other states, where little or no data has been collected on the practice’s impact and abuses.

The Democrats’ bill, HR 1, is “suspiciously silent on the murky ballot harvesting practices that recently threw North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District into chaos,” McConnell said during a recent speech on the Senate floor.

Shortly after the midterms, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan made national headlines by calling the practice “bizarre” and arguing that what happened in California, where several seats in traditionally red Orange County flipped, “defies logic.” Several Republicans saw election night leads dwindle away in the days and weeks afterward as mail-in and absentee votes were counted. Three years ago the state legislature passed a law making it lawful for anyone to collect voters’ absentee ballots and drop them off.

Democrats have countered that the GOP hasn’t shown any documented evidence of fraud involved with the practice and is simply trying to make it harder for Democrats to vote, especially in minority communities where voters may not be close to polling places or have transportation available to them.

John Santos, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, told RealClearPolitics that the party is fighting to overturn laws barring ballot harvesting in Arizona and other places because there “is no evidence of widespread fraud” that “would justify blanket bans.”

During consideration of HR 1 on the House floor last week, Democrats voted down amendments from GOP Reps. Ken Calvert of California and Mark Walker of North Carolina that would have prohibited ballot harvesting nationwide.

“For years, conservatives who questioned ballot harvesting – a practice where unvetted organizers can go door-to-door, collecting absentee ballots like candy – were criticized and demeaned,” Walker (pictured) said in a statement afterward. “Now, as we see election fraud in my home state and House Democrats are rightfully calling for additional election-security measures, they are rejecting common-sense proposals, fearing a breakdown of their legislated electoral advantages.

“Ballot-harvesting is a cooking pot for election fraud and abuse, and we need to get all the cooks out of the kitchen,” he added.

Before the GOP amendment was rejected, the Native American Rights Fund, the oldest and largest nonprofit law firm devoted to defending the rights of Indian tribes, wrote a letter to members of Congress calling on them to oppose Calvert’s proposal, arguing that “mailing locations are not as accessible for natives on tribal lands as they are to non-natives off tribal lands. Home mail-service does not exist throughout Indian Country.”

The Calvert amendment is a solution in search of a problem, the group wrote, adding, “On the rare occasions in which improprieties are alleged to have occurred in the handling of ballots, such as those that have come to light in North Carolina … they are already prohibited under state law. The answer to these sorts of violations is to use existing laws, not pass unneeded federal legislation that will disenfranchise Native American voters.”

Republicans say they proposed the nationwide ban precisely because states have become a patchwork of expansions and prohibitions regarding the practice, depending on which party controls the legislature.  

Calvert said last week that the practice lacks transparency, which has understandably led to voter concern. He said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and other election officials “have provided little if any information on the rules and regulations covering ballot harvesting since Democrats legalized the practice” there.

On March 4 he sent a list of 27 questions to his local Riverside County Registrar of Voters that he said remain unanswered. For instance, he questioned whether those turning in collected ballots are required to provide their name or the name of the organization they are working on behalf of or any other identifying information, and whether they are barred from turning over a ballot to another individual or organization before turning it in to an authorized voting location.

Calvert also asked whether the registrar requires any identifying information from the individual who drops off the ballot, whether a list of those persons is created and whether that list is subject to public disclosure. Because the law states it’s illegal to fail to “deliver the ballot in a timely fashion,” he asked what constituted a “timely fashion” and if there were any hard deadlines involved.

“Our election laws should always be focused on what protects the confidence and integrity in our elections, not what gives one party an advantage over the other,” Calvert said a statement.

In response to Calvert’s questions, Padilla said only that California is “expanding opportunities for eligible citizens to register to vote and for registered voters to cast their ballot.”

“These opportunities include in-person early voting, the option to vote-by-mail, and giving voters the power to decide who they most trust to return their vote-by-mail ballot for them if they so choose,” he told the Riverside Press Enterprise.

“As other states are rolling back voting rights, California is modernizing our elections and making it easier for all eligible citizens to participate.”

McConnell said he and other Republicans have opposed ballot harvesting and called for other “common-sense” election safeguards only to be “demonized by Democrats and their allies.”

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

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