Democratic proposal would let just about anyone collect votes
In 2016, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a law that allowed anyone to pick up voters’ mail-in ballots and return them. There were essentially no restrictions on the practice: A candidate, political operative, or union representative could collect a ballot at a voter’s door and put it in the mail or take it to a polling place.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats used the law to their advantage. Political workers collected thousands of ballots and brought them to election offices. In Orange County, formerly a Republican stronghold, seven competitive U.S. House seats went to Democrats.
Republicans blamed aggressive ballot collection practices for their losses and sought to turn things around in 2020 by adopting similar tactics. But the party came under fire for installing more than 50 private ballot boxes in places with GOP-leaning voters. The California attorney general and secretary of state ordered the party to cease and desist because only county officials can set up official ballot drop boxes. Hector Barajas, spokesman for the California GOP, said what Republicans were doing was no different from ballot harvesting.
The clashes over what constitutes legal ballot collection could flare up even more if congressional Democrats succeed in passing legislation that would limit states from putting restrictions on the practice. On March 4, the U.S. House approved a 791-page bill that would dramatically overhaul election laws in the states. H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, would mandate automatic voter registration, restrict how states purge voter rolls, increase in-person voting hours, mandate 15 days of early voting, and compel states to send out absentee ballots. Republicans unanimously opposed the measure.
The GOP aimed some of its sharpest criticism at the bill’s provisions for ballot collection. Democrats argue it gives people who cannot get to the polls—senior citizens, workers, or medically vulnerable adults—a way to participate in elections. But ballot harvesting raises the risk of fraud and abuse and could lead to even less voter confidence in the next election outcome.
After the 2020 election, the election integrity concerns raised by President Donald Trump and his campaign centered mostly on lawful voter registration, who could use mail-in and absentee ballots, which ballots were counted and when, and electronic voting security. Though ballot harvesting did not rank as high on the list, the Heritage Foundation had documented at least a dozen instances of fraud related to ballot collection even before Nov. 3, 2020.
One of the best-known recent cases happened in the 2018 midterm elections in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. An operative who worked for a firm hired by a Republican candidate Mark Harris conducted an illegal absentee ballot collection scheme that resulted in Harris’ narrow win over Democrat Dan McCready.
Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. paid locals for every 50 mail-in ballots they would collect and turn-in. North Carolina makes it illegal for anyone other than a family member or guardian to return a voter’s ballot. Dowless and others signed the ballots to signify they had watched the voter make their pick and even forged signatures and filled out the ballots in some cases. The state elections board refused to certify the election, and Harris ultimately bowed out of the race.
Many states have provisions that allow ballot harvesting, particularly to assist voters with disabilities, but they include limits to prevent fraud. Twelve states have laws specifying who, exactly, can collect ballots such as family, household members, or caregivers. Twenty-four states allow voters to choose who can return their ballot for them. At least nine states have restrictions against certain people returning mail ballots, including employers, union agents, and campaign workers.
H.R. 1 would do away with many of those guardrails. While the bill has little chance of passing in the short term—Democrats don’t have the 60 votes needed in the U.S. Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster—similar battles over ballot collection are playing out in the states. And the bill shows where Democrats’ priorities are on election changes, which they are expected to keep pushing.
“We’ve had procedures in place for a while that make it really hard to do mass voter fraud,” said Adam Carrington, assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College. “That said, there is a history of when things were loosened up. There were credible accusations that there is less of a trail; the less oversight, the less confirmation, the more you could have political machines stuffing ballot boxes and things like that.”