Dis­puted House race puts spot­light on “bal­lot har­vest­ing”

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Matt Volz

HE­LEN A , MONT.» An in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives in North Carolina il­le­gally col­lected and pos­si­bly stole ab­sen­tee bal­lots in a still-un­de­cided con­gres­sional race has drawn at­ten­tion to a wide­spread but lit­tle-known po­lit­i­cal tool called bal­lot har­vest­ing.

It’s a prac­tice long used by spe­cial-in­ter­est groups and both ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties that is viewed ei­ther as a voter ser­vice that boosts turnout or a ne­far­i­ous ac­tiv­ity that sub­jects vot­ers to in­tim­i­da­tion and makes elec­tions vul­ner­a­ble to fraud.

The groups rely on data show­ing which vot­ers re­quested ab­sen­tee bal­lots but have not turned them in. They then go door to door and of­fer to col­lect and turn in those bal­lots for the vot­ers — of­ten dozens or hun­dreds at a time. Some place bal­lot-col­lec­tion boxes in high-con­cen­tra­tion voter ar­eas, such as col­lege cam­puses and take the bal­lots to elec­tion of­fices when the boxes are full.

Sup­port­ers of bal­lot har­vest­ing say they worry the North Carolina elec­tion may give an im­por­tant cam­paign tool an un­nec­es­sary black eye. Th­ese groups see their mis­sion as help­ing vot­ers who are busy with work or car­ing for chil­dren, and em­pow­er­ing those who are sick, el­derly and poor. Col­lect­ing bal­lots to turn in at a cen­tral­ized vot­ing hub also has been an im­por­tant tool for decades on ex­pan­sive and re­mote Amer­i­can In­dian reser­va­tions.

“Some­times we think of vot­ing as this re­ally straight­for­ward process, and we of­ten for­get that all vot­ers, but for new vot­ers in par­tic­u­lar, there’s a lot of con­fu­sion when vot­ing about when they ac­tu­ally have to vote by, where they have to take their bal­lot,” said Rachel Huff-Do­ria, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the voter ad­vo­cacy group For­ward Mon­tana.

Sev­eral states have tried to limit bal­lot har­vest­ing by re­strict­ing who can turn in an­other per­son’s bal­lot. In Ari­zona, a video that showed a vol­un­teer drop­ping off hun­dreds of bal­lots at a polling place prompted a de­bate that led to an an­tibal­lot har­vest­ing law in 2016.

“I think at any level, Repub­li­can, Demo­crat or any­thing, it’s wrong. It’s a ter­ri­ble prac­tice,” said for­mer Ari­zona Repub­li­can Party chair­man Robert Gra­ham, who backed the law. “Peo­ple should be re­spon­si­ble for their own votes.”

The Ari­zona law mak­ing it a felony in most cases to col­lect an early bal­lot was chal­lenged in fed­eral court be­fore the 2016 elec­tion, and blocked by an ap­peals court. The U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and al­lowed the law to be en­forced.

Fur­ther chal­lenges have been un­suc­cess­ful, most re­cently just be­fore the midterm elec­tion.

Mon­tana was the lat­est state to pass a law op­pos­ing bal­lot har­vest­ing when vot­ers ap­proved a ref­er­en­dum last month. Al Ol­szewski, a Repub­li­can state sen­a­tor, said he pro­posed the ban af­ter two of his con­stituents in north­west­ern Mon­tana com­plained of pushy bal­lot col­lec­tors com­ing to their homes.

“For a woman in her 70s that’s maybe frail and lives alone and feels in­tim­i­dated, at least now they can say please leave” and have con­fi­dence that the law is be­hind them, he said.

Vot­ing-rights ad­vo­cates are dis­mayed that such laws are be­ing passed.

They say re­strict­ing who can col­lect bal­lots pun­ishes cer­tain vot­ers with­out do­ing any­thing to ac­tu­ally de- tect, de­ter or pun­ish fraud.

Cal­i­for­nia went in the op­po­site di­rec­tion when it passed a law in 2016 to al­low bal­lot har­vest­ing.

Repub­li­cans felt the new law’s ef­fects dur­ing this year’s midterm elec­tions af­ter con­gres­sional dis­tricts that GOP can­di­dates were lead­ing on Elec­tion Day flipped to the Democrats when a flood of pro­vi­sional bal­lots were counted.

The rout in­cluded sev­eral seats that had been held by Repub­li­cans in the for­mer GOP strong­hold of Orange County.

And in the agri­cul­ture­dom­i­nant Cen­tral Val­ley, Repub­li­can in­cum­bents Jeff Den­ham and David Val­adao saw their leads dis­ap­pear af­ter a tally of late-ar­riv­ing bal­lots.

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