Along with other unprecedented changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has seen the biggest changes to our election structure in living memory. Most of these changes are not completely new — some apply past methods more broadly and others expand the methods themselves. Many remove voting from the voting booth and place it on untested ground like unsolicited mail-in ballots or voting drop boxes. This makes voting more convenient and possibly safer from disease transmission. But it also eliminates safeguards perfected over decades — an issue that should concern voters of all political stripes. As we wait for the final ballots to be counted in Pennsylvania, these new systems will begin to show their weaknesses.
Voting remotely is new in most places and poses new problems and challenges to ballot security. Where your ballot once passed directly from you to the people assigned to count it, it now may pass through many hands before it is tallied. Even without any of those hands belonging to a would-be fraudster, each additional step opens the process to the possibility of error. And if there is dishonesty along the way, it becomes very difficult to stop it.
The worst of these new practices is known as “ballot harvesting,” in which some third party collects ballots from voters and delivers them to where they will be counted. That sounds harmless enough, but it opens the door to fraud on a grand scale. More remote voting means more opportunities for this kind of harm.
That is not just conjecture, either. In 2018, corrupt ballot harvesting by Republicans in North Carolina led state officials to question the legitimacy of those votes. The state’s board of elections voted unanimously not to certify the result and launched an investigation. The results were troubling: workers from the campaign of Republican Mark Harris collected ballots and returned them to campaign offices, not the county offices to which they should have gone. Suspicious numbers of absentee ballots were never returned, twice as many from Democrats as from Republicans. Democrat Dan McCready withdrew his election night concession.
The worst of these new practices is known as ‘ballot harvesting,’ in which some third party collects ballots from voters and delivers them to where they will be counted. That sounds harmless enough, but it opens the door to fraud on a grand scale.
Though the vote tally showed Harris winning by 905 votes, the entire election was voided and a new one scheduled for September 2019. The Republicans, led by a new candidate, Dan Bishop, won the election, this time without fraud. But the consequences were serious: the district went nine months without congressional representation and the legitimacy of North Carolina’s elections was tarnished.
All of that went on in a state that had already banned anyone but an immediate family member from delivering a ballot. One would think that the attempted fraud would lead North Carolina and other states to tighten ballot harvesting laws. Instead, Democrats across the country have done their best to loosen those restrictions, despite having been the victims of harvesting fraud in 2018.
That work was already underway in California where, as the San Diego Union-Tribune reported: “In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a change to Section 3017 of the Election Code that allows any person to collect a mail-in ballot from voters and turn in the mail ballot to a polling place or the registrar’s office. Prior law restricted the practice to just relatives of or those living in the same household as the voter.”
The change cleared the way for paid campaign workers to collect ballots. Nothing seen in the North Carolina debacle seems to have steered California’s legislators from their course in weakening ballot protections. In 2019, Democrats at the federal level tried to impose their views on voting security on the entire nation. Even as a seat in the House sat vacant because of ballot harvesting chicanery, the majority proposed a bill that would force states to expand absentee balloting without any of the safeguards that would prevent fraud.
However, in 2020 a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) aimed to end ballot harvesting and improve election security. Their Election Fraud Prevention Act limits mail-in ballot returns to election officials, mail carriers, family members, household members, or caregivers. Unfortunately, in a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, their bill has stalled in committee.
Ballot harvesting takes power out of the voters’ hands and places it with political bosses and corrupt campaign officials.
In Pennsylvania, election law changes in 2019 allowed for mail-in balloting for the first time, as well as expanding absentee ballot access. The effects of the pandemic have meant that many are leaping into that new system before its security has been fully tested. Pennsylvania law prohibits ballot harvesting, but this is very difficult to enforce. Unless a voter complains that someone took their ballot and “lost it,” there is no way for the state to know who dropped it in the mailbox. In the same way, there is no way to know who filled it out in the first place or whether the voter was being coerced by another member of their household.
New Jersey’s law is less strict, allowing anyone to be designated by the voter as an authorized messenger, though it does say that no authorized messenger may act in that capacity for more than three voters. (The National Conference of State Legislatures lists the laws on this subject for all fifty states.)
Our traditional voting methods eliminate the problems with mail-ins. The privacy of the voting booth keeps votes secret. Even if some overbearing spouse or parent demands that voters vote a certain way, they have no way of knowing what happens behind the booth curtain. When you vote at the polling place, no one knows what your ballot says but you. In-person balloting remains the best way to ensure votes are cast as voters intend.
There may eventually be equally safe ways of voting remotely, but we have not yet developed them. In states like California, officials are even working to make the system less secure. Ballot harvesting takes power out of the voters’ hands and places it with political bosses and corrupt campaign officials. Pennsylvania has some safeguards, but as the coming legal fights will show, the state’s mail-in system is still flawed. We must do more in the coming elections to ensure that the only person controlling a voter’s ballot is the voter.