- Ballot harvesting increases the risk of several forms of voting fraud.
- There is evidence of ballot harvesting by at least two groups in Bladen County.
- Laws against ballot harvesting in North Carolina must be strengthened.
Back in 1996, I was working as the field coordinator for a congressional candidate in Louisiana. One of my jobs was getting signs out to supporters across the district. While I was making deliveries one day, I stopped and asked a couple of local gentlemen sitting on a front porch for directions. Seeing the campaign signs in my truck, they promptly offered to sell me their votes for $10 each.
I did not take them up on their offer for two reasons. The first consideration was ethical; we were not in the business of buying votes. The second consideration was practical. Even if I had paid them, I could only have been able to verify that they had voted. I would not have been able to confirm for whom they voted.
But what if I, or any other political operative, could not only be able to confirm that a person voted before election day but could be with the voter while she was marking her ballot, potentially seeing if she was voting for the “correct” candidate? Or if an operative could electioneer for that candidate while the voter was completing her ballot? What if that political operative could then deliver bushels of ballots from similarly “assisted” voters to the local board of elections or, more artfully, mail them all in to the local board?
Enter ballot harvesting.
What Ballot Harvesting Is and Why It Is a Problem
Ballot harvesting involves political operatives going to people who have requested absentee ballots but have not yet voted, collecting those ballots, and (presumably) delivering them to the local board of elections. It often includes political operatives getting people to make absentee ballot requests in the first place. The term became part of North Carolina’s political lexicon after allegations of the practice cast doubt on Republican Mark Harris’ narrow victory in November over Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th congressional district. Ballot harvesting is illegal in North Carolina; only close relatives can legally submit ballots on behalf of voters.
Steven F. Huefner, a law professor from Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, noted four ways in which ballot harvesting by political operatives increases the risk of voting fraud:
- Ballot harvesters can destroy or discard ballots from those whom they know or believe voted for the “wrong” candidate.
- Ballot harvesters can collect ballots in unsealed envelopes, or open sealed envelopes, and either alter votes or fill in blank portions of undervoted ballots (those in which the voter did not vote in some races).
- Ballot harvesters can collect unfilled ballots and fill them in themselves.
- Ballot harvesters can exert improper influence on voters while the voters are completing their ballots.
Ballot Harvesting in Bladen County
The fourth practice (at least) appears to have been employed by groups in Bladen county over the past several elections. The North Carolina State Board of Elections has released evidence supporting allegations that Leslie McCrae Dowless encouraged employees of his 2016 get-out-the-vote operation in Bladen County to “assist” local citizens with their absentee ballot applications and then gather their ballots in violation of North Carolina law. Dowless’ operation appears to have gone as far as to have staffers deliver unmarked absentee ballots to him (see page three of the document).
The evidence was released in the context of a current State Board of Elections investigation which centers on the extent to which Dowless’ alleged ballot harvesting on behalf of Harris affected the outcome of the 2018 race for the 9th Congressional District. Dowless is alleged to have harvested hundreds of absentee ballots during the race.
Harris has admitted to hiring Dowless to conduct get-out-the-vote work in Bladen County, but insists that Dowless only described legal absentee ballot request work and that Dowless specifically stated that he would not conduct ballot harvesting:
He (Dowless) said that he hired individuals that worked for him that went out and canvassed door to door trying to encourage people to be involved and were they willing to fill out an absentee ballot request form, and they would fill out the absentee ballot request form, and they would take it and return it to the board of elections.
I remember him saying specifically that they were not to take a ballot, they were not to touch a ballot. In fact, he used the illustration that I still recall, that I don’t care if it’s a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair or a walker, you cannot take her ballot.
Harris denies knowledge of any alleged criminal activity by Dowless. However, he had been warned about Dowless’ past, including convictions for fraud and perjury and his potentially criminal get-out-the-vote activities in 2016, before making the decision to hire him for get-out-the-vote work (see previous link).
The State Board of Elections document also includes allegations about a group called the Bladen City Improvement Association PAC (BCIA-PAC) conducting ballot harvesting during the 2016 general election. The BCIA-PAC appears to have conducted similar activities in 2018. In one incident, a man in Bladen County reported that someone from the PAC arranged for him and his wife to request absentee ballots and that he and his wife did not complete their ballots until someone from the PAC “came back and made sure that we filled it out right.” While the man’s statement does leave some room for interpreting exactly what “it” is, the arrangement is troubling.
BCIA-PAC received funding from the NC Democratic Party as late as October of 2018 (page 4), although party chair Wayne Goodwin denies any knowledge of alleged criminal activities by the group.
While the unusually high number of absentee ballot requests in Bladen and neighboring Robeson county have been long noted, part of the work for investigators trying to determine if ballot harvesting affected the outcome of the 9th Congressional District race is differentiating those ballots requested and harvested at the behest of Dowless and those done at the behest of the BCIA-PAC.
There is No Such Thing as Good Ballot Harvesting
After the immediate issue of the 9th Congressional District election is resolved, focus will shift to preventing a repeat of that fiasco. There will likely be disagreement over the next several months about how vigorously the law against ballot harvesting should be enforced and what should be done to strengthen that law. California legalized the practice in 2016 and leftist political groups there used it to great effect in the 2018 election, ousting Republicans from several conservative-leaning seats. In California’s conservative-leaning Orange County, over 250,000 absentee ballots were dropped off on election day. Neal Kelley, Orange County Registrar of Voters, noted concerns about ballot harvesting:
We certainly had that going on here, with people dropping off maybe 100 or 200 ballots. We also had voters calling and asking if it was legitimate for someone to come to their door and ask if they could take their ballot.
With those results in mind, some progressive political groups in North Carolina may seek loopholes to allow more ballot harvesting. They may try to somehow differentiate “good” ballot harvesting from the ballot harvesting that has allegedly been going on in Bladen County over the past several elections.
North Carolina should not play that game.
Instead, there are several practical steps that officials can take to address the ballot harvesting controversy:
- Prosecute all those who engage in ballot harvesting. Anyone, other than a close relative, who submits a ballot on behalf of a voter is violating North Carolina law (S. 163-231 (B)(1)) and should be prosecuted. Strict prosecution of acts of ballot harvesting after the 2016 election may have prevented the problems election officials are facing regarding the certification of the 9th Congressional District race. Similarly, vigorous prosecution of ballot harvesting during the 2018 election will serve as a deterrent to violations in future elections.
- Require the State Board of Elections to fully and accurately report on what it has been doing to address absentee ballot fraud: HB1029, which the General Assembly passed last December over Gov. Roy Cooper’s Veto, includes a provision (Part V on page 19) requiring the State Board of Elections to “report and make recommendations to the Joint Legislative Elections and Ethics Oversight Committee on absentee ballot fraud” by April 1. That report will likely be the starting point for North Carolina’s next battle over voting integrity.
- Approve legislation addressing absentee ballot fraud this year: While the General Assembly waits for the mandated report on absentee ballot fraud from the State Board of Elections, early work can begin on legislation to prevent future acts of ballot harvesting. Some provisions that legislation could include: limiting the number of ballots individuals can witness, requiring that local boards of elections only accept ballots submitted by voters or their near relatives (or accepting them on a provisional basis, pending confirmation from the voter), and not allowing those associated with campaigns, political parties, or political action committees to serve as witness for absentee ballots (current law prevents candidates (163-237 (1b)) from serving as absentee ballot witnesses). The legislature should be ready to act soon after the April 1 report from the State Board of Elections.
Given Gov. Cooper’s record of opposition to voting integrity legislation, he is likely to veto the much-needed reform that addresses absentee ballot fraud. However, for the sake of voting integrity and restoring confidence in North Carolina’s elections, it is a fight worth having.