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Policy Summary: In 2016 the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1921 which expanded on who can return an absentee or mail ballot on another person’s behalf. Previously, the only persons permitted to return another person’s mail ballot were family members residing in the same household as the voter (spouse, children, parents, brother, sister, etc.). With the new law California allowed any person designated by the voter to return the mail ballot. Familial ties were no longer required nor did the person designated by the voter have to reside in the same household. The rationale for the law was to remove further barriers that could have prevented some people from returning their ballot.

Over the last few weeks, the Republican Party in California hatched an idea to collect ballots and deliver them to local election headquarters. In the cities of Fresno and areas around Los Angeles ballot collection boxes were set up at churches and gun shops. The ballot collection boxes set up at these locations by the Republican Party were in violation of state law and prompted a memorandum from California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to provide clarity on the use of unauthorized ballot collection boxes. Republicans countered that their use of ballot collection boxes is perfectly within the law as written by the Democrats in the Legislature. On October 12, 2020, Secretary Padilla filed a cease and desist order with the California Republican Party and local Republican Parties in Fresno, Los Angeles and Orange Counties to stop the use of unauthorized ballot collection boxes. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis: The issue that triggered this fight in California just weeks from Election Day is known as “ballot harvesting.” It is also known as “ballot collection.” A voter can mail their mail ballot or absentee ballot back to election headquarters or simply drop it in an official ballot collection box set up by the local county. However, the laws from each of the fifty states are not uniform and some states permit another person to return their ballot, some states do not and other states have no laws addressing the issue. Some of the most common restrictions are the number of ballots that can be returned by one person (e.g. Montana limits a person to six ballots returned by him or her on behalf of another voter), a bar on political candidates or their staff from returning another person’s ballot and some technical requirements such as signing an affidavit on voter assistance forms.

The problem with the ballot collection boxes set up in California by the Republican Party, aside from the technical requirements, is that the collection boxes are only targeted at likely Republican voters. The intent of the ballot collection law in California and in a number of other states is to allow the individual voter to select one person to return their ballot. Many of the ballots have sections on the envelope where the designated person will sign their name and attest that the voter has voted. What the Republicans are instead doing is setting up a massive ballot collection effort that will operate outside the safeguards that many of these state ballot collection laws have implemented. If a person known to be a Democrat in the community drops his or her ballot in these unauthorized collection boxes there is no guarantee that the Republican Party will deliver the ballot. Additionally, there is no one signing for the receipt of these ballots which does not give anyone responsibility for the delivery of the mail ballot. And while the use of officially sanctioned ballot drop boxes have protocols for the security of the box and the retrieval of the ballots by known elections officials in the county these receptacles used by Republicans have none of those protocols in place. And it can be difficult to demand and monitor these kinds of protocols if the boxes are placed in a location like a gun shop.

While Republicans claim to merely be playing by the rules set up by California Democrats there is a dark chapter with the Republican Party when it comes to ballot harvesting. Just last year, a Republican political operative in North Carolina was indicted in a ballot harvesting scandal. Leslie Dowless, Jr. ran a ballot collection operation that included sending absentee ballots to voters who never requested one, filling in the ballots personally for multiple voters and signing the voter’s name himself. With this sordid incident happening so recently, it is questionable to allow the Republican Party to engage in another ballot collection effort on a large scale without ensuring that security and retrieval protocols are in place. Secretary Padilla of California has already sent out cease and desist orders to local Republican officials to halt their efforts at using unauthorized ballot collection boxes but it may take a few days to see if Republicans will comply or if they will continue to use this ballot harvesting method to try and sow confusion and try to manipulate an election that is only weeks away. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Resistance Resources:

LawFare – infopage on ballot collection issues and how it has been handled in courts.

National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) – chart detailing ballot collection statutes in all fifty states.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.

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