America's electoral obsession isn't Russian meddling anymore. It's ballot-harvesting, a long-disputed practice implicated in fraud that's come to the fore with the nationwide embrace of absentee voting in recent years -- and especially in last month's midterms.
With ballot-harvesting, paper votes are collected by intermediaries who deliver them to polling officials, presumably increasing voter turnout but also creating opportunities for mischief.
The latter is suspected in North Carolina, where uncharacteristic Democratic charges of vote fraud prompted an investigation into whether Republican-paid political operatives illegally collected and possibly stole absentee ballots in a still-undecided congressional race. A national spotlight was shone by The New York Times, which, like Democrats, often minimizes vote fraud; it flooded the zone in this case, assigning five reporters to a single story.
In California, by contrast, Democrats exulted as they credited a quietly passed 2016 law legalizing ballot-harvesting with their recent sweep of House seats in the former Republican stronghold of Orange County, thereby helping them win control of the House.
In that case, it was Republican eyebrows that were arched. Speaker Paul Ryan said what happened in California “defies logic.”
In Orange County, an estimated 250,000 harvested ballots were reportedly dropped off on Election Day alone. County Republican Chairman Fred Whitaker claimed the 2016 law "directly caused the switch from being ahead on election night to losing two weeks later.”
One interaction caught by a Santa Clarita family’s doorbell camera suggested how harvesting can work in practice. A harvester, identifying herself as Lulu, asks for Brandi, and says she is there to collect her ballot, explaining that there is “this new service, but only to, like, people who are supporting the Democratic Party.”
However, there is no evidence that ballots were marked or discarded by those harvesting the ballots, as is alleged in North Carolina.
Election officials there have refused to certify Republican Mark Harris’s victory over Democrat Dan McReady in the state’s 9th Congressional District, and Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a Democratic member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is seeking an emergency hearing into possible voter fraud in that race.
"Votes have been stolen by preying on senior and minority voters, and now a cloud of doubt and suspicion hangs over this election result," Connolly said.
North Carolina absentee ballots require a “witness,” or second signature, to verify the voter’s identity. In Republican-heavy Bladen County, the same people were signing as witnesses for numerous absentee ballots, a telltale sign that they were being “harvested.”
In fact, one TV station interviewed a harvester who claimed she was paid by Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a local political operative, between $75 and $100 a week to pick up completed absentee ballots. Dowless has worked for numerous North Carolina politicians of both political parties.
Dowless’s connection to Harris’s campaign, which paid Harris’s employer $428,000 for administrative, staff and grassroots services, is prompting a national look at ballot harvesting, which is considered election fraud because North Carolina law specifically prohibits anyone from collecting ballots.
But evidence is emerging that Dowless wasn’t the only one harvesting in the Tar Heel State.
WBTV, a Charlotte station, reviewed 796 official ballot envelopes of votes cast in Bladen County. The review identified 110 that were signed by two women who are listed as having been paid by a PAC connected to the North Carolina Democratic Party.
North Carolina is but one example of dubious ballot-harvesting nationwide. The practice is so common, harvesters even have their own region-specific names. In Florida, they’re known as “boleteros.” In Texas, they’re called "politiqueras."
In Missouri, Democratic state Rep. Penny Hubbard, a member of a St. Louis political dynasty known for ballot harvesting, was challenged and ultimately ousted in 2016 by progressive Bruce Franks, a protester in the Ferguson unrest. Absentee-ballot handling irregularities had handed her a delayed 90-vote win, even though Franks won 53 percent of the vote on Election Day.
In Florida, a Palm Beach Post investigation into numerous 2016 primary races uncovered significant evidence of voter fraud by Democratic candidates, who pushed back on any criticism by claiming racial discrimination.
Three Democratic candidates, County Commissioner Mack Bernard, state Rep. Al Jacquet, and a candidate for state Senate, Bobby Powell, all ordered mail ballots on behalf of constituents, in many cases without those constituents’ knowledge. Then, they either filed out the ballots for them or had them fill out the ballots while the candidates were present in their homes. All three candidates would win on the strength of massive margins in absentee votes.
One Boynton Beach couple told the Post that Bernard just showed up at their door one day in August. Joseph Cerfius, a blind Haitian man, said he didn’t even know who Bernard was, or that he was a candidate for office. But Bernard produced a ballot, filled it out on Cerfius’s behalf, then actually signed Cerfius’s name.
“I couldn’t sign because I can’t see,” Cerfius said. “I gave him my voting card number. That’s all I did. He wrote my name.”
With a presidential election looming in less than two years, and with the example of California fresh in mind, expect the fight over expanded voting rights to include pushes for legalized ballot harvesting.
States like Florida and Georgia, which both endured contested elections and lawsuits over absentee ballots last month, can anticipate the push to be tinged with racial undertones. The two states’ respective Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, were both also their state’s first African-American nominees, and regularly alleged racial discrimination in any arguments advocating the counting of contested ballots.
(Florida currently allows volunteers to collect ballots, except in Miami-Dade County, which has a localized prohibition against anyone having more than two ballots on their person at once. Georgia prohibits the practice except if the voter is disabled.)
Only 16 states regulate ballot-harvesting at all, and their rules vary.
In Colorado, one of three states to conduct all elections entirely by mail-in ballots, third-party volunteers are allowed to collect up to 10 ballots, though critics have long alleged that the practice is ripe for exploitation.
In November, Montana voters passed a state referendum banning the collection of ballots by third parties. And Arizona’s 2016 ban against the practice, which had previously been linked to voter fraud in the state, was recently upheld by a federal appeals court, despite claims that it would disproportionately impact Latino voters who relied on third parties to help navigate the voting process.
Expect arguments and legal challenges to continue. The first presidential primary ballots will be cast in 14 months.
Eric Eggers directs research at the Government Accountability Institute and is the author of “Fraud: How the Left Plans to Steal the Next Election.”