By Wendy Underhill
Who can collect and return a voted absentee (or mail) ballot?
That’s a non-inflammatory way of asking a question raised by the North Carolina 9th Congressional district race, where the November 2018 election results were tossed out based on an investigation into election fraud. A new election has just been scheduled.
As to the potential election fraud, it seems that a political operative working on behalf of the Republican candidate ran an absentee ballot campaign that depended on collecting ballots from voters. Some call this process “ballot harvesting.” NCSL is calling it ballot collection, or the return of absentee ballots, on its new webpage.
From a voter’s point of view, it may be taken as a kindness if someone offers to mail in or drop off a voted ballot (in its signed envelope).
From an election integrity point of view, does the act of collecting ballots, voted or unvoted, leave room for out-and-out election fraud? Is it possible that voted ballots might be collected—but not delivered—if the voter is of a different party than the collector?
With those questions in mind—convenience for voters and integrity for elections—some states are explicit about who can handle a voted ballot, while other states are statutorily silent on the issue. On our new webpage, Returning Absentee Ballots, we look at the many ways states address this question.
For recent legislative examples, three states come to mind: Arizona, California and Montana.
- In 2018, Montana voters approved a legislatively referred ballot measure to limit any person to collecting and conveying six voted ballots.
- In 2016, Arizona enacted HB 2023, which specified that no one other than a family member, household member or caregiver can return a voter’s ballot, and made it a felony for others to do so.
- Also in 2016, California enacted AB 1921, which says a “vote by mail voter who is unable to return the ballot may designate another person to return the ballot.” The new law goes on to say that compensation for the collection of ballots is prohibited. Some, such as Fox News, say the law allowed Democrats to win even bigger than expected in 2018 in California; others, including the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, say the bill’s intention was to remove “yet another obstacle for individuals attempting to vote.”
It’s probably not coincidental that these states are in the West, where there’s a long history of high voter participation by absentee/mail ballots, even though the three states have each taken unique approaches.
And, breaking news, it looks like Republicans may offer an amendment on HR 1, a Democratic bill on elections, redistricting campaign finance and more, that would restrict collections to just family members, household members or caregivers.
Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.