As the 2020 Presidential Election is quickly approaching, COVID-19 is putting our prior voting laws to the test. How will the American people vote for their preferred Presidential candidate this November without putting their health at risk? Several politicians on Capitol Hill are pushing for universal absentee ballots, but this option has been met with strong opposition for fear of voter fraud.
Representative and former Democratic Presidential Candidate Amy Klobuchar is one of the chief drafters of a bill proposing universal accessibility to absentee voting for the upcoming 2020 election. This bill is backed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as she attempted to garner funding for absentee voting in the recent Stimulus Bill. Though mandating absentee voting for the 2020 Presidential Election might seem like a viable solution to keeping the American people safe from contact with the Coronavirus during this election season, many are worried about the possibility of voter fraud through the common practice of ballot harvesting absentee ballots.
So What Is Ballot Harvesting, and Why Is It So Controversial?
The primary way of voting in most states is in-person, secure voting at a local registered voting facility. This is the preferred, and sometimes, the only way to cast a vote in most states because it helps to insure the anonymity and security of the voter and their ballot from manipulation by interested parties. However, in cases in which voters are unable to go physically to a registered voting facility, like out-of-state college students or those who are too ill to leave their home, they can request an absentee ballot. An absentee ballot is a paper ballot delivered by mail to the encumbered voter, and most states require that only a direct family member can deliver the completed ballot to a registered voting center.
The primary way of voting is in-person, secure voting at a local registered voting facility, which helps to insure the anonymity and security of your vote.
However, many states have “unconditional absentee voting,” which means that any citizen within that state can request an absentee ballot, even if they are physically able to go to a voting center. But in 2016, California passed a law that allowed anyone - not just a close relative - to pick up and drop off ballots in the state. The process, commonly known as "ballot harvesting," is very controversial, and consequently considered illegal, in most states because it makes voting fraud easily accessible with little to no accountability.
This is how ballot harvesting works: When you register to vote, your political party preference and voting history are stored as government information and are accessible to campaigns or politically partisan organizations. During an election season, it’s recorded who has already voted and who has not. In states, such as California, where ballot harvesting is legal, political organizations and campaigns can send volunteers to “collect” ballots from people who haven’t voted yet. This means that a political partisan group can target individuals who are most likely to vote for their particular party.
Where ballot harvesting is legal, political organizations and campaigns can send volunteers to “collect” ballots from people who haven’t voted yet.
Unfortunately, illegal voting manipulation and abuse is commonplace and goes under the radar even in states with ballot harvesting laws. Once the absentee ballot is in the hand of the person in charge of delivering the ballot to the registered voting booth, the fate of the ballot is in their hands. If a volunteer for a political organization picks up a ballot from someone who voted for their opposing candidate, then the volunteer can discard the ballot without anyone noticing. The individual wouldn’t know that their vote hadn’t been cast, and the government wouldn’t know that the individual cast their vote in the first place. Discarding ballots is painfully easy in states with legalized ballot harvesting, and it could have dire consequences on future elections if it becomes commonplace.
Though many states outlaw ballot harvesting and require family members to deliver absentee ballots, other states, such as California, have legalized the practice, which has already had major consequences on election outcomes.
So What Happened in California? The Blue Tsunami
Ballot harvesting received national attention as the “Blue Tsunami” swept over California, when during the 2018 Midterm Democratic candidates swept traditionally Republican strongholds in California last minute due to a mass mobilization effort of ballot harvesting.
In 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown passed law AB1921 that went largely unnoticed until it became instrumental in changing the entire voting outcomes of the 2018 California Midterm elections. California is one of the states that allow for unconditional absentee voting—any California citizen can request an absentee ballot by mail even if they are able to physically go to the voting booths. Prior to Brown’s new voting law, only the voting citizens themselves or a direct family member were allowed to deliver the absentee ballots to voting facilities. However, AB1921 made ballot harvesting legal, allowing anyone to collect ballots up until election day. Though this might seem like a minor difference, it changed the entire outcome of the 2018 Midterm elections.
If a volunteer for a political organization picks up a ballot from someone who voted for their opposing candidate, then the volunteer can discard the ballot.
In light of the new legalization of ballot harvesting, Democratic interest groups mobilized volunteers to harvest votes from Democrat voters in primarily Republican districts to swing the vote during the 2018 Midterms. On election day, it was projected with near certainty that the Republicans had gained six Congressional seats from their respective Republican districts. However, Democratic volunteers delivered over 250,000 absentee ballots, which ripped up the Republican victory and replaced these long-standing Republican seats with Democratic representatives. Traditionally, Californian Republicans have held 14 out of California’s 53 Districts. At the end of 2018, they held only seven. The Democrat Interest Groups praised this as a victory for their mass mobilization, yet many speculate that Republican ballots were harvested and discarded, skewing the results of the Midterm election.
Risks for the 2020 Presidential Election
Absentee ballots are clearly necessary for cases in which voters are unable to physically travel to voting centers to cast their ballots. However, mandating absentee voting as the primary way of casting our ballots for the 2020 Presidential Election comes with major risks, particularly concerning ballot harvesting.
If Klobuchar and Pelosi succeed in mandating absentee ballots during the 2020 Presidential Election to curb the spread of COVID-19, the democratic system for the entire election process will be at risk: there is currently no way to guarantee that our ballots remain anonymous and are securely cast in voting facilities. States that require a family member to deliver the ballots to the voting booths have an additional level of security, however the truth of the matter is that there is currently no method of protecting against voting fraud.
Once anonymity is removed from the voting process by a middle party, voting fraud becomes painfully accessible and democracy becomes that more fragile.
Whether our ballot is delivered by a family member to a staff member at a voting booth or if it is picked up by a political volunteer, we are no longer in control of our vote. Once anonymity is removed from the voting process by a middle party, voting fraud becomes painfully accessible and democracy becomes that more fragile.
If Klobuchar and Pelosi do succeed in passing legislation that mandates absentee voting for the 2020 Presidential Election, both political parties need to be ready for mobilization. Ballot harvesting could become commonplace, and both parties need to garner votes from their voters to minimize the chances of voter fraud. Republicans lost the California 2018 Midterms because they didn’t match the Democratic party’s mass mobilization efforts to harvest votes. If we desire a fair and equal outcome for the 2020 Presidential Election with minimal fraud, both political parties have to mobilize to ensure that their voters are not left behind.