This article was originally published at Real Clear Pennsylvania.

This fall, as the midterm elections approached, a leafy suburb west of Philadelphia became Pennsylvania’s ballot-harvesting leader – and perhaps the nation’s. That suburb, Delaware County, defied both convention and statistical trends, as local Democratic organizers built a completely legal ballot-harvesting juggernaut.

You might presume that Pennsylvania ballot-harvesting happens in Philadelphia’s mean streets or in woke college dorms. No: these organizers did their work in plain sight, along Delaware County’s bucolic oak-lined sidewalks and soccer fields. And they enrolled Democratic voters for mail-in balloting when no other Pennsylvania county was able to do so.

Prior to the pandemic, Pennsylvania had passed an election-reform law enabling mail-in voting.

Unlike in-person voting, which requires no voter identification, Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot process requires the applicant to provide identification, either a driver’s license or Social Security number. County Boards of Elections are required to verify the information, or the ballot cannot be cast.

Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting has more fail-safes than traditional in-person voting. For fraud to occur with mail-in balloting, at a scale that can affect a statewide election, it must happen at two points: harvesters illegally obtaining lists of driver’s licenses or Social Security numbers to complete applications and cast ballots without voters’ knowledge; or Board of Elections workers conspiring to invalidate applications.

As there is no evidence of either of these happening in Delaware County, how, exactly, were ballots harvested?

Pennsylvania has sixty-seven counties. Each operates a Board of Elections. As mail-in ballot applications are submitted by voters to county Boards of Elections, employees time-stamp when applications are received, when ballots are mailed, and when ballots are returned.

These time-stamps paint a fascinating picture. In sixty-six of Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties, application rates followed a nearly identical pattern. In a typical county, two-thirds of Democratic mail-in ballot applications occur in the spring, and one-third happen in the fall. The fewest applications happen during the summer.

The reason most Democratic voters apply for a mail-in ballot in the spring is because by statute, county Boards of Elections are required to mail the prior year’s applicants new applications to re-enroll. Smartly, Democratic campaigns leverage those taxpayer-funded, official mailings to do the heavy lifting while their campaigns “chase” those mailers with texts, robocalls, and digital ads encouraging Democratic voters to re-enroll.

With liberal voters adhering to Anthony Fauci’s contact guidance during the pandemic, Pennsylvania Democrats adopted mail-in voting at an astonishing rate, while Republicans chose to continue voting in-person. In 2020, for example, over half of Democratic ballots cast in Philadelphia were by mail, despite most Philadelphians being no farther than a five-minute walk from their polling station.

Delaware County Democrats defied political gravity through hard work. Republicans need to do the same or be destined to failure in future elections.

The remaining one-third of Democratic voters apply for a mail-in ballot during the fall. Democratic ballot-harvesting efforts tend to pump the breaks by late September because nearly 15% of Democratic mail-in ballot applicants do not return ballots. Those late mail-in ballot applicants often wind up as uncast votes. In the final three weeks of an election, Democratic organizers believe that it is best to focus on shepherding voters to vote in-person instead.

Delaware County was the only one in the state to buck the two-third/one-third trend. It got most of its Democratic mail-in ballot applications during the summer.

One might have assumed that the Dobbs abortion decision, released in late June 2022, would have led to a summer surge in Democratic mail-in ballot applications. Yet across Pennsylvania, the presumed Dobbs summer surge never came.

The summer was weak for Democratic ballot harvesters, even in the Democratic strongholds of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Make no mistake, U.S. Senator-elect John Fetterman and Governor-elect Josh Shapiro had the resources to do it. Likewise, the summer surge never came in Montgomery County, home to the Democratic suburban base.

Many neighborhoods in Delaware County can be sparsely inhabited during the summer, with vacation destinations of the Jersey Shore or Poconos just a short car drive away. That did not matter to Delaware County’s Democratic organizers, who continued working here.

Read more: Chester County elections board to implement stringent dropbox monitoring policies

Delaware County’s Democratic candidates relentlessly knocked on doors throughout the summer, carrying mail-in ballot applications for voters. The candidates’ volunteers and paid canvassers did the same, knowing that 85% of those who apply will cast a ballot. Those votes were in the bank before Labor Day.

Sixty-one percent of summer Democratic mail-in ballot applicants were women. The application surge was spread across the county, with competitive races seeing a larger proportional share. Fewer than 10% of those summer Democratic applicants failed to return ballots, significantly better than the statewide average.

Delaware County Democrats defied political gravity through hard work. Republicans need to do the same or be destined to failure in future elections.

Yet while Democratic organizers were somewhat successful at legal ballot harvesting, they significantly underperformed what historical patterns indicate could have been achieved. Republicans can beat them at their game.

Pennsylvania’s Republican candidates had a bad midterm largely because Republicans did not vote. Pennsylvania remains a purple state.

The failure of Pennsylvania Republicans to implement a mail-in ballot strategy is a problem that can be solved. Florida Republicans excel at it, and they have used it to make blue places red.

In a few weeks, more than 300,000 Republicans will receive a mail-in ballot re-enrollment application from their county’s Board of Elections. That represents over a quarter-million GOP voters who understand the process.

These are the low-hanging fruit. The GOP needs a program to chase those applications via digital ads, texts, and robocalls, just like the Democrats do.

Then, targeting must expand to re-enrolling 2020 Republican mail-in ballot applicants. After that, the GOP needs an education campaign to explain to Republican voters that there is a greater chance of getting struck by lightning than having a mail-in ballot go uncounted.

Over 80% of Pennsylvania’s counties are GOP-controlled and should have no interest in disenfranchising Republican voters – or any voters, for that matter. Likewise, in the 20% of counties run by Democratic officials, those in charge have no interest in bouncing Republican ballots because doing so would imperil Democratic ballots, which tend to be more flawed.

In sum: mail-in ballot education and solicitation must be the Pennsylvania Republican project for 2023 and 2024.

Before mail-in ballots existed, Pennsylvania Republicans dominated absentee ballots. Significant money, time, and effort was spent on this nascent form of voting by mail. The Republican Party of Pennsylvania would mail every likely Republican voter an absentee ballot application.

Pennsylvania Republicans know how to do this. By getting back to basics, Republicans will start winning again.

Athan Koutsiouroumbas is a managing director at Long Nyquist and Associates and a former congressional chief of staff.

One thought on “Koutsiouroumbas: America’s ballot-harvesting capital is in suburban Philly”

  1. 1. The main premise of this article — that Republicams are shooting themselves in the foot by failing to embrace mail-in voting — is undeniably correct. Mail-in voting does not inherently favor Democrats, indeed the opposite may the the case, as shown by the historic Republic success with mail-in voting in Florida. Older voters tend to lean Republican and also like mail-in voting because they may have mobility issues.
    2. The article can be faulted for incorrectly using the term “ballot harvesting”. Ballot harvesting refers to an organized practice of collecting completed mail-in ballots from voters. It is legal in some states (like California) and can be a legitimate get-out-the-vote (GOTV) technique, but it is not legal in PA and there is no evidence that it was done in 2020 or 2022. Ballot harvesting raises the concern that those collecting the barllots may exert influence on voters or, even worse, may not deliver some ballots that were collected.
    3. Republicans would do well to listen to what most voters want, which is to have multiple options of voting conveniently — whether early voting, by mail, or in person.
    4. The Republican antipathy to mail-in voting should be seen in the context of a couple of quirks in 2020: there was no covid vaccine, on average, Democrats were more worried about covid than Republicans, and in states like PA mail-in ballots were counted late. While Donald Trump won the in-person vote in PA in 2020, he lost the mail-in vote by a substantial margin, There is nothing about mail-in voting that requires a delay in counting. Indeed, because most mail-in votes are returned before election day, they can even be counted faster. States like Florida do this, and in 2020 Florida was called for Trump early on election night.
    5. Maybe Republicans and Democrats can agree to some reforms to mail-in voting that will make it easier for all: let counties begin processing mail-ballots before election day, allow ballots mailed by election day to count, count ballots where the voter forgot to use the secrecy envelope, and remove the requirement that voters date the ballot.

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