"Ballot Harvesting": Something Is Rotten in California, and Heading Your Way Soon


To get right to the point, the emerging political “art” of “ballot harvesting” is sketchy at best and flat-out corrupt at worst. Since you’ve probably never heard of it, ballot harvesting is the practice of hand delivering another person’s mail-in or early ballot to a polling place. It is often performed by paid door-to-door canvassers or volunteers working for political candidates.

The practice is sometimes framed in terms of partisan politics, with Democrats being for it and Republicans against it. However, this is the wrong way to examine the issue. It’s a larger question of ethics, and ethics should never be viewed through the lens of Us vs. Them. Moreover, candidates and Political Action Committees (PACs) from both parties have utilized the practice. Lastly, trust me, Democrats have got a head start with this sleazy tactic, but if history is any guide, the always better-funded GOP will end up exploiting it much more efficiently and ruthlessly.

Ballot harvesting made headlines in 2015 when a practitioner working for a PAC named Citizens for a Better Arizona was caught on video stuffing hundreds of ballots into an unattended voting box. The following year, Senator John McCain was accused of utilizing the tactic to defeat Dr. Kelli Ward after one of his canvassers tweeted, “Going to chase down early ballots in a pencil skirt for @TeamMcCain!”

Arizona is one of 19 states that have now outlawed the practice. Nonetheless, the matter made its way to the Supreme Court in the fall of 2016 after the Ninth Circuit overturned Arizona’s ban. The high court stayed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, keeping the ban in place.

In the fall of 2016, a California Assembly bill was signed into law that allowed for unlimited ballot harvesting. What makes this especially worrisome is that half of Californians vote by mail, and that share is growing.

It’s easy to see — and entirely plausible — how this new law could further compromise electoral integrity. For example, canvassers claiming to work for one candidate could take voters’ ballots and complete them on behalf of another candidate.

Then there’s the possibility of voter coercion. In California, evangelical churches, unions and political organizations already routinely hold ballot parties, where participants are virtually certain to vote the desired way. What’s to stop these groups or individuals — like your boss — from going to the next level and coercing you to vote as they demand? Or to toss your ballot if you don’t choose properly?

We’ve already seen this occur during the voter registration process countless times in our history. And what about “Granny Farming”? Older voters in convalescent homes are already targeted with pre-marked absentee ballots. There are multiple threats posed by ballot harvesting, including the certainty that Fox News will soon be rolling out endless stories claiming that this proves once and for all that Democrats are guilty of massive electoral fraud.

In California, Assembly candidate Wendy Carrillo hired a group called GroundWorks to canvass and harvest mail ballots in her recent successful campaign. The Service Employees International Union-California paid for the work. (As an aside, it’s important to note here that SEIU does not support California’s Medicare-for-all bill and has been hand-picking candidates that will acquiesce to its terrible position.)

Dr. Ron Birnbaum ran against Carillo in the Democratic primary and witnessed the ballot harvesting monkey business first hand, so I was pleased to be able to discuss the problem with him in depth. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

TDB: What worries you the most in regard to ballot harvesting?

RB: The Assembly bill expands the list of persons who may bring in a ballot on behalf of a voter. This can include political parties, paid political committees, members of a campaign, anyone. There is no limit on the number of ballots an individual can bring in, and people can be paid to do this work with the single stipulation that they can’t be paid on a per ballot basis. 

While on its surface this would appear to make it “easier to vote,” it’s probably better to say that this allows campaigns with more resources to make it easier for their supporters to vote. And this potential inequity is not what scares me the most. 

Third parties, such as campaigns or paid field operations, can now bother or cajole or potentially intimidate voters into giving them their ballots. The most susceptible to this intimidation are those least likely to know how to report it or protect themselves from it. There is very little to stop tampering with ballots, vote-buying or even discarding of ballots.

Since the law went into effect in January 2017, Northeast Los Angeles has seen a number of special elections, and in each case there have been reports of ballot harvesting. In more than one of these cases a paid field consultant operation called Groundworks appeared to be involved, but it is not clear if the practice has been limited to them. In theory anyone can do it.

TB: Do you think people who frame this as a partisan issue are wrong?

RB: Yes and no. Ultimately this is a non-partisan issue in that it helps candidates with more resources have an easier time winning elections, regardless of affiliation. That said, the bill was passed on virtually a party line vote in the legislature. It seems that only one Democratic member of the Assembly, Mike Gatto, joined all Republicans in voting against it. 

In California, this will end up largely favoring candidates I would describe as “establishment Democrats,” but I see no reason why Republicans will not take up this approach and use it to their advantage in certain districts as well. It is non-partisan in that this is basically about people in power making it easier for their favored candidates to win elections. 

Knowledgeable political operatives acknowledge that the persons most susceptible to these techniques would be persons with limited education on voting rights and procedures or language limitations, in particular immigrant Latino and Asian voters in parts of Los Angeles. This may have made this approach appealing to Democrats as they assumed that these methods would work well for their party’s candidates. I am the son of Latino immigrants myself, and new voters bring a real fervor and passion and deep knowledge to civic participation, but that does not mean that many immigrants are invulnerable to being manipulated.

TB: Do you think ballot harvesting affected the outcome of your primary special election?

RB: It’s hard to say. It’s a matter of public record that most voters voted by mail but based on my initial inquiries, the state registrar is not keeping track or publishing numbers of ballots brought in by third parties.

SEIU-CA and affiliates created a large, well-funded independent expenditure committee on behalf of the winning candidate. That committee — Working Families for Wendy Carrillo — hired Groundworks as a paid canvassing operation, and it is the emerging expert on exploiting the new rules. 

More than half of Wendy’s votes were Vote by Mail. The special election turnout was relatively small and the victory margin not particularly large. It might have changed the outcome, but we just can’t say. But it has tremendous potential to change outcomes in elections going forward, and all over the state.  

TB: Does the issue of ballot harvesting bear any relationship to the issue of voter suppression?

RB: Yes, but not necessarily in the way that one might think. A classical understanding of ‘voter suppression’ is that it involves decreasing the number of votes, in particular from vulnerable populations. Ballot harvesting would seem to increase participation from certain vulnerable populations, and so its proponents would argue that it is the opposite of voter suppression. 

I might even agree with them if reforms were aimed at increasing a given group of vulnerable voters’ potential to vote for whomever they want, but that is not the case. invariably candidates with the most sophisticated and well-resourced operations will be favored.  

Voter suppression and ballot harvesting have a shared logic: they seek to manipulate election results on behalf of the powerful by manipulating vulnerable voters. Ultimately, we have a problem with low voter turnout, especially among the poor. There are many reasons for this, and not all the reasons are clear. But one potential reason is that too many people believe their vote doesn’t matter in a rigged system.

Ballot harvesting will contribute to that despair and cynicism. In that sense I believe it will ultimately directly suppress the vote. One of the darkest parts of living in this period of history is the feeling that democratic institutions are in decline. We have to stand by them. The legislature achieved the direct opposite with the bill on ballot harvesting.

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Actress. MA in Philosophy. Host of the District 34 podcast.