What is 'ballot harvesting,' and why is California fighting about it?

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An official mail-in ballot drop box is posted outside of a library ahead of Election Day on October 5, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. - Mario Tama/Getty Images North America/TNS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Ballot drop boxes appearing in California this week prompted state officials to issue cease and desist orders against the Republican Party organizations that set them up.

Yet California Republicans are refusing to remove the boxes, which Democratic officials say are illegal under state election law.

The dispute highlights a longstanding rift between parties over a practice known as ballot collecting, sometimes called ballot harvesting.

Ballot collection allows a designated person to deliver a voter’s mail ballot for them, and Californians have been doing it for several years. The practice is also legal, with some restrictions, in Colorado, Georgia, and Montana.

Previously, if California a voter was unable to return their mail ballot themselves, they could designate a family member or person living in the same household to deliver it to a ballot drop box, the county elections office, or send it back in the mail.

But in 2016, under Assembly Bill 1921, the state Legislature expanded the law to let any person, not just a family member, return someone’s ballot for them. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat who authored the bill, said at the time it would remove another obstacle for voters.

Paul Mitchell, vice president of California consulting group Political Data Inc., said the law is commonly used for everyday election purposes rather than nefarious political action. While there are instances where organizations will call around and ask voters if they need help delivering their ballot, it’s more commonly used between individuals, he said.

“It makes it so that my mother isn’t committing a criminal act when she returns the ballot of her elderly neighbor,” Mitchell said. “The pedestrian use of this ballot delivery law is 100 times greater than any kind of organized political campaign’s use of the law.”

“This is something that just normal people end up using,” Mitchell said.

Republicans originally opposed ballot collection, saying such practices could open the door for fraud and could give Democrats an unfair advantage.

Some even suggested it played a roll in the 2018 midterms, when California Republicans initially looked to be in the lead in several competitive congressional races, but late-counted ballots led to a victory for Democrats. There is no evidence that the late leads were the result of ballot harvesting.

During the 2020 legislative session, Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, introduced a bill that would have restricted ballot collection to only those people in the voter’s family or household in the event of an emergency like COVID-19. The bill failed to pass committee.

Following the Democratic wins in 2018, California Republicans had a choice to make, said spokesman Hector Barajas. They could either continue to oppose ballot harvesting, or they could play by the rules the Democrats had written.

“Okay, you set up that chessboard and we’re going to go and play the chessboard with the rules you set up,” he said. “That’s what Republicans are doing.”

Barajas and Republicans argue that drop boxes, even if they’re deployed by volunteers or political parties, are a legal form of ballot collection. The law does not specify what type of container can be used to collect ballots, Barajas said, nor does it require the ballots to be signed by the person who delivers them.

“This is just another form of me going door to door,” he said. “When I go door to door, I can get those ballots and put it in a bag, whether it’s a trash bag or a box that I get from Ikea.”

But Secretary of State Padilla and Attorney General Becerra say the law is clear: the unofficial, unauthorized drop boxes in question violate state law and jeopardize the security of voters’ ballots. According to the state officials, the unofficial boxes that appeared over the weekend in Fresno, Los Angeles and Orange Counties misled voters to believe they were official and secure boxes. Some were set up outside gas stations, party headquarters and gun stores.

According to Becerra, the only valid drop boxes are secure receptacles established by local elections officials that also adhere to state security standards, and anyone returning a ballot on behalf of a voter must provide their name, signature and relation to the voter on the return ballot. Voters must also know who specifically is returning their ballot.

“Those ballot boxes would be completely legal if they instead just had a person there,” Mitchell said. “They could say ‘Tom is going to be at the gun shop all day long, you can turn your ballot into Tom,’ and that would be totally legal under California law.”

The California Republican Party has until Thursday to reply to the cease and desist letter from the state, at which point Barajas said the party intends to push back against the state’s legal reasoning. Several state leaders expressed support for the removal of the boxes, including Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who on Tuesday tweeted that California will “do everything in our power to protect the sanctity of the vote.”

In the meantime, Republicans say they’re not planning on removing the drop boxes.

“On the contrary, we may actually be increasing them,” Barajas said. “We got a lot of inquiries from people.”


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)