Disputed House race puts spotlight on “ballot harvesting”
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.