Huefner: “The Perils of Allowing Absentee Ballot Harvesting”

Steve Huefner:

Indeed, earlier this year the American Law Institute approved a set of principles (which can be found here) for conducting early and absentee voting, one of which is akin to Arizona’s anti-harvesting law. (I serve as the Associate Reporter for this ALI project.) That ALI principle essentially provides that absentee voters should only be permitted to return their ballots by mail or by hand, either personally or by an agent or family member who should be allowed to deliver only two ballots at a time. This principle reflects a careful balancing of a number of relevant interests at stake in how elections are conducted, and makes eminent sense for the vast majority of voters who do have reliable access to the U.S. mail, and who also can conveniently drop off their ballots in person. As Judge Bybee’s dissenting opinion in today’s Ninth Circuit decision noted, the 2005 bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform also had called for similar limitations on absentee ballot harvesting, which a number of states besides Arizona have long had in place.

The harder question is how to balance the reasonable justifications for these general prohibitions on absentee ballot harvesting against the burden such a prohibition may impose on a small minority of affected voters who are far from the election offices and lack access to reliable mail service, as for instance the voters identified in the complaint in the Arizona case. Yet the Ninth Circuit presumably could have limited its order to that subset of voters, rather than enjoining Arizona’s new law in its entirety. Meanwhile, with respect to all other voters, those groups who wish to harvest their absentee votes could be allowed instead to provide postage, rather than hand delivery, for their ballots.

Instead, today’s Ninth Circuit decision unfortunately has essentially rejected Arizona’s legitimate reasons for the anti-harvesting law as it applies to most of the absentee voters in the state. At the least, the court ought to have explored a narrower injunction.

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