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No, Republicans didn't lose in California because of ballot harvesting. But the practice is concerning

No, Republicans didn't lose in California because of ballot harvesting. But the practice is concerning
Piles of mail-in ballots are readied to be counted at the Orange County Registrar of Voters at their facility in Santa Ana on Nov. 7. ((Nick Agro / For The Times) / (Nick Agro / For The Times))

Rather than take responsibility for their losses, Republicans have seized on a new state law that allows third parties to collect and turn in other people’s mail ballots to explain why they were so badly defeated in California races on Nov. 6.

According to the conspiracy theories being spouted by Republican leaders and then repeated in the internet echo chamber, the new law allowed Democrats to steal GOP seats in Orange County by sending campaign workers door to door, collecting thousands of mail ballots from guileless voters and doing who knows what to the ballots before handing them over — or not handing them over — to campaign officials.

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It’s rubbish, of course. There’s no evidence that the ballot collection law was misused, even in the few reported cases when people turned in dozens of collected ballots. (Indeed, GOP campaigners employed the same tactic, just not as well, evidently.) Republicans are just looking for an excuse to explain their embarrassing election day drubbing.

Elections officials and Secretary of State Alex Padilla ought to, at the very least, limit the number of ballots that may be collected.


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But — and this is an important but — the Democrats set themselves up for exactly these kinds of allegations when they passed what really is an overly-permissive ballot collection law. It was written without sufficient safeguards, and suspicions of abuse were inevitable.

To reiterate: There’s absolute no reason to suspect fraud in last month’s election — not through “ballot harvesting” or in the large number of provisional ballots turned in or how long it took to count ballots, as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has irresponsibly suggested. But the ballot collection law passed in 2106 does open the door to coercion and fraud and should be fixed or repealed before the next election.

Before the law was passed, only a family member or a member of the household was authorized to deliver a ballot on behalf of a registered voter. But AB 1921 relaxed that rule, allowing others — including canvassers, campaign workers and anyone else — to solicit voters to fill out ballots and deliver them.

The potential for misuse first became apparent in a special election in Los Angeles last year between two Democrats for an open seat in the state Assembly. In the final weeks of the race, complaints surfaced about aggressive campaign workers pressuring voters to hand over ballots on behalf of Wendy Carrillo, who ultimately won the race.

That’s only one way the law could be misused. Doesn’t it also encourage ballot collectors to gather the ballots and then “lose” them — oops! — on the way to the drop-off? Isn’t there the possibility that they might pay voters to hand over their unfilled mail ballots?

This is why some states don’t allow ballot collection at all or limit ballot collectors to turning in only a small number of ballots. Colorado, for example, limits the number of ballots that can be turned in by a third party to 10, presumably making a race more difficult to manipulate.

In light of November’s victory, the Democratic-controlled California Legislature may be reluctant to tinker with a law that might have contributed to its victory. But it should do so nonetheless, because failure to do so might jeopardize wide-scale adoption of election reforms over the next year. Only six of 58 counties, including Los Angeles starting in 2020, have committed to adopting the new reforms included in the state Voter’s Choice Act. As long as ballot harvesting continues, other counties may be understandably hesitant to participate in the new system, in which mail ballots will be sent to every voter. That’s millions of opportunities for misuse.

That would be unfortunate. The reforms in the Voter’s Choice Act do much to encourage voting — more than mass ballot collection does. Elections officials and Secretary of State Alex Padilla ought to urge lawmakers to resolve this problem; at the very least, they should limit the number of ballots that may be collected.

Meanwhile, instead of impugning the integrity of California’s voting system, we suggest Republicans focus their energy inward. There is no mystery to the historic upset, in which they lost every single statewide contest, seven of 14 U.S. House seats and enough state legislative seats to give Democrats a rare three-fourths majority in the state Assembly. This outcome was all but inevitable given the shifting demographics and politics of the state and the GOP’s stubborn insistence on demonizing immigrants and focusing on social conservative policies that don’t appeal to most Californians. Like the ballot collection law, this is fixable too.

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