Bal­lot ‘har­vest­ing’ at the door

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Democrats Luis Lopez and Wendy Car­rillo are run­ning for Assem­bly Dis­trict 51 in a spe­cial elec­tion on Dec. 5. With only a small per­cent­age of reg­is­tered vot­ers ex­pected to cast bal­lots, vic­tory could turn on just a few votes, putting ex­tra pres­sure on cam­paign work­ers to squeeze out sup­port where they can.

In the typ­i­cal get-out-the-vote ef­fort, cam­paign work­ers make calls and hoof it from door to door to plead for votes. But there are re­ports that some can­vassers in the Dis­trict 51 race have gone a step fur­ther, ask­ing vot­ers to com­plete and hand over their vote-by-mail bal­lots. Lopez’s cam­paign has warned sup­port­ers about intimidation from Car­illo can­vassers ask­ing for bal­lots, and one writer in the dis­trict said a Car­illo cam­paign worker came to his door and pres­sured him to hand over his com­pleted ab­sen­tee bal­lot. He was outraged.

Bal­lot col­lec­tion isn’t il­le­gal, though it is un­der­stand­able why some might feel un­easy about it. Bal­lots are sup­posed to be sacro­sanct. When you vote at your lo­cal polling place, poll work­ers don’t urge you to sup­port this can­di­date or that. They’re bound by rules that are de­signed to en­sure they don’t in­flu­ence vot­ers or im­prop­erly han­dle a com­pleted bal­lot. Things are nec­es­sar­ily looser for mail bal­lots, be­cause you vote where you want to and with whom. The trade­off, though, is that it’s eas­ier for cam­paigns to strong-arm th­ese vot­ers.

Then there’s the in­tegrity of the bal­lot it­self. It’s one thing to trust the U.S. Postal Ser­vice, which pre­sum­ably doesn’t have an in­ter­est in state and lo­cal races, to de­liver your bal­lot. It’s quite an­other to trust a stranger who shows up one day promis­ing to make sure your vote gets counted.

In pre­vi­ous years, only a fam­ily mem­ber or a mem­ber of the house­hold was au­tho­rized to de­liver a bal­lot on be­half of a reg­is­tered voter. But the Leg­is­la­ture changed the rules in 2016 when it passed AB 1921 as part of a pack­age of re­forms in­tended to raise turnout.

At the time, vot­ing se­cu­rity ad­vo­cates raised con­cerns that the pro­vi­sion would throw open the door to voter co­er­cion, giv­ing groups such as la­bor unions or megachurches an­other tool to pres­sure mem­bers to vote a cer­tain way. Also trou­bling is the po­ten­tial for malfea­sance or neg­li­gence, given that the law pro­vides no safe­guards to en­sure that the bal­lots make it to of­fi­cial elec­tion fa­cil­i­ties in time to be counted. And al­though the law for­bids cam­paigns to pay for bal­lot col­lect­ing, there’s no clear way to en­force the ban.

The bill’s au­thor, Assem­bly­woman Lorena Gon­za­lez Fletcher (D-Chula Vista), plans cleanup leg­is­la­tion next ses­sion; at the very least, she should con­sider re­quir­ing bal­lots be turned in swiftly and by elec­tion day. More broadly, law­mak­ers should re­assess the wis­dom of al­low­ing un­lim­ited and un­ver­i­fied third-party bal­lot col­lec­tion be­fore the 2018 cam­paigns be­gin in earnest. And vot­ers should al­ways be wary of strangers of­fer­ing to bear away bal­lots.

Th­ese days more Cal­i­for­ni­ans vote by mail than do so in per­son. If it means more peo­ple are vot­ing, that’s a good thing — as long as we can be sure that their votes are be­ing cast and counted prop­erly.

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