Dis­puted vote high­lights ‘bal­lot har­vest­ing’

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY MATT VOLZ As­so­ci­ated Press

IT’S A PRAC­TICE VIEWED EI­THER AS A VOTER SER­VICE THAT BOOSTS TURNOUT OR A NE­FAR­I­OUS AC­TIV­ITY THAT SUB­JECTS VOT­ERS TO IN­TIM­I­DA­TION AND MAKES ELEC­TIONS VUL­NER­A­BLE TO FRAUD.

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.

In North Car­olina, elec­tion of­fi­cials are in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Repub­li­can political op­er­a­tives har­vested bal­lots in parts of the 9th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict with high num­bers of Demo­cratic vot­ers and then did not turn them in to the lo­cal elec­tions of­fice. Bal­lot har­vest­ing is il­le­gal un­der state law, which al­lows only a fam­ily mem­ber or le­gal guardian to drop off ab­sen­tee bal­lots for a voter.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is fo­cus­ing on ar­eas in the dis­trict where an un­usu­ally high num­ber of ab­sen­tee bal­lots were not re­turned.

Repub­li­can Mark Har­ris leads Demo­crat Dan Mccready by 905 votes, but the state elec­tions board has re­fused to cer­tify the re­sults. The head of the state Repub­li­can Party said Thurs­day that he would be open to hold­ing a new elec­tion if there is ev­i­dence of fraud.

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 Na­tive Amer­i­can 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 to,” 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 anti-bal­lot 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 so far been un­suc­cess­ful, most re­cently just be­fore the midterm elec­tion.

Mon­tana was the lat­est state to pass an anti-bal­lot har­vest­ing law 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 with­out ev­i­dence of ac­tual bal­lot fraud hap­pen­ing, at least be­fore ques­tions were raised about the ac­tiv­i­ties in the North Car­olina con­gres­sional race. They say re­strict­ing who can col­lect bal­lots pun­ishes cer­tain vot­ers with­out do­ing any­thing to ac­tu­ally de­tect, de­ter or pun­ish fraud.

“If you have an hon­est per­son who is try­ing to help vot­ers, then who they are doesn’t mat­ter as long as they re­turn (the bal­lot),” said Myrna Perez, the deputy direc­tor of the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice’s democ­racy pro­gram.

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 agri­cul­ture-dom­i­nant Cen­tral Val­ley, Repub­li­can in­cum­bents Jeff Den­ham and David Val­adao were swept out of of­fice af­ter a tally of latear­riv­ing bal­lots.

Val­adao, for ex­am­ple, had an ini­tial lead of more than 7 per­cent­age points over Demo­crat T.J. Cox but ended up los­ing his seat af­ter Cox won 56 per­cent of the votes counted af­ter Elec­tion Day.

Repub­li­can House Speaker Paul Ryan de­scribed Cal­i­for­nia’s elec­tion sys­tem as “bizarre” in an in­ter­view with The Washington Post.

Cal­i­for­nia’s sit­u­a­tion un­der­scored that bal­lot har­vest­ing is an im­por­tant tool for political par­ties. Orange County Repub­li­can Party Chair­man

Fred Whi­taker wrote in a news­let­ter last month that Repub­li­cans must “de­velop a re­sponse to this new law that al­lows us to re­main com­pet­i­tive.”

Rivko Knox, a vol­un­teer with the League of Women Vot­ers, col­lects sig­na­tures for a cam­paign fi­nanc­ing bal­lot mea­sure out­side a polling sta­tion in Glen­dale, Ariz., in April. Rep. Jeff Den­ham, R-calif., left, speaks next to Rep. David Val­adao, R-calif., dur­ing a May news con­fer­ence on Capi­tol Hill in Washington.

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