Behind the brewing legal battle is a nationally reverberating dispute over a 2016 California law authorizing third parties to collect filled-out mail ballots from voters and submit them to elections officials. Republicans here and in Washington have excoriated the process, saying it’s susceptible to fraud and allows liberals to manipulate election outcomes (a House Republican study raised security concerns but found no concrete instances of fraud in California).
After California Democrats swept competitive House contests in 2018, some California Republicans conceded that they had no choice but to match their counterparts by embracing the tactic. In leaked audio, National Republican Congressional Committee chair Rep. Tom Emmer said Republicans had to adapt after getting “their clocks cleaned.”
This week’s drama shows the party further embracing that change. In doing so, Republicans are trying to paint Democrats as hypocrites wielding a partisan double standard when it comes to election tactics. The party is “going to be ballot harvesting throughout the entire state,” Millan Patterson said.
That stance has echoed to the highest levels of national politics. Trump has constantly assailed California’s voting rules, but this week he repeatedly urged California Republicans to charge ahead, asserting on Twitter that Democrats have “been taking advantage of the system for years!”
California Republicans have acknowledged placing the boxes in three large counties that contain the most contested House races of 2020. And they’re exploring a similar tactic in other states that allow third-party ballot collection, albeit with more constraints than in California.
“Chairman Emmer has said repeatedly that anywhere Democrats have legalized ballot harvesting Republicans will play by the same rules those Democrats put in place,” NRCC spokesperson Torunn Sinclair said in a statement.
California is one of 26 states that allow a voter to designate someone to deliver their ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state has some the most relaxed laws on third-party collection based on the NCSL database; 12 states, for instance, limit the number of ballots that one person can collect to deter coordinated campaign efforts. California does prohibit payment for ballot collection
Rick Hasen, aprofessor specializing in election law at the University of California, Irvine, cited two potential “overlapping rationales” for California Republicans’ strategy.
“Number one is they’re trying to thread the needle between Trump’s claims of fraud with mail-in ballots and the reality that Republicans in California like elsewhere have long relied on vote by mail,” Hasen said, “and the other possibility is it’s a way of trying to highlight the Democrats’ laws that allow for ballot harvesting and to highlight the insecurity of the practice.”
Hasen said he supports curtailing California’s voter-collection law, such as limiting the number of ballots any given person can pick up and deliver. But he argued Republicans are pursuing a “bone-headed means of getting out the vote” given the potential for people tampering with the boxes.
“It just doesn’t seem like a very smart way to get out the vote,” Hasen said. “It would be far better for them to go door-to-door to Republican households.”