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California Republicans buy into ‘ballot harvesting’

Election workers collect ballots from voters turning them in at the Alameda County Ballot Drop Stop in Oakland on Nov. 8, 2022.
Martin do Nascimento
Election workers collect ballots from voters turning them in at the Alameda County Ballot Drop Stop in Oakland on Nov. 8, 2022.

Former President Donald Trump claims mail balloting is rife with fraud. But to win more elections, the state GOP is expanding its efforts to collect mail ballots to boost turnout.

For years, Republicans have railed against “ballot harvesting” as an underhanded tactic by Democrats to win elections.

But for the 2024 election, the California GOP is going big on collecting ballots from voters and dropping them off at election offices or polling places, which is legal in California, with some conditions.

In part, it’s a reflection of political reality: With a few exceptions, the Republican Party has been struggling. On top of Democratic majorities in the Legislature since 1996, no Republican has been elected statewide office since 2006. And since the COVID-19 pandemic, California has sent mail ballots to every registered voter, making it easier for people to cast their ballots earlier and not just at polling places on Election Day.

“These are the rules that we have been given. And we have to play by those rules,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, chairperson of the California Republican Party. “It doesn’t make any sense to only be Election Day voters. That is like only playing three quarters of a football game.”

Patterson said she has recognized the importance of early voting since 2018, when she ran for party chairperson — a “very dark time” when the GOP lost half of its congressional delegation. And she’s still saying it even though mail voting has been central to former President Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“We would win California in a general election if they didn’t have a rigged voting system, where they send out 22 million ballots,” Trump told the party convention last month within the first few minutes of his speech — contrary to some messaging from his own campaign. “Nobody knows where they’re going, who they’re going to, who signs them, who delivers them, and who the hell counts ‘em? Nobody knows.”

Fact-check: State law requires county election officials to let you to track your ballot from when it’s submitted to when it’s counted and to collect data on rejected ballots. 

Later at the convention, though, delegates attended a session on ballot harvesting, which session leaders said could capture the votes of “lazy Republicans” in key areas. But they said it probably isn’t worth the effort in heavily Democratic neighborhoods.

While mail-in voting is widely thought of as benefiting Democrats, studies find it doesn’t favor one party over the other.

“We did not find that there was a party advantage like increasing turnout. It didn’t increase turnout more for Democrats versus Republicans,” said Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at USC’s Price School of Public Policy.

California is one of 31 states that allows a person voting by mail to designate someone else to return their ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Prior to 2017, only family or household members could return ballots, but the Legislature changed that in part because there was no way to enforce that law, according to Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

Now, anyone can return the ballot as long as that person isn’t compensated based on the number of ballots returned (it’s legal to be paid a flat rate). The person must sign the envelope and return the ballot in person or by mail within three days of receiving it, or before polls close on Election Day.  

What’s not legal?

Forcing anyone you’re collecting a ballot from to vote a certain way. Employers are also barred from requiring or asking employees to bring in their ballots.

Unofficial dropboxes are also prohibited. In 2020, California sent a cease-and-desist letter to the state Republican Party, as well as local chapters in Fresno, Orange County and Los Angeles, for misleading practices, such as placing ballot drop boxes that were falsely labeled as “official.” The state threatened legal action, but stood down after the California GOP agreed to modify how it collected ballots.

Asked if it would deploy dropboxes in 2024, the party only responded that it plans to “employ a robust ballot harvesting program that ensures that voters have more options to cast their ballot in the primary and general elections.”

Alexander sees the GOP effort to amp up third-party ballot returns as positive. But she does believe the laws governing the process could be more clear, and that election officials should educate voters more about their rights — such as rejecting someone’s offer to collect a ballot.

She also notes that state law requires that the ballot collector fill out their name, relationship to the voter and signature on each ballot envelope. But even if that information is not filled out, that’s not necessarily grounds for rejecting the ballot. The information and signature are more like a contract between the voter and the collector. 

“That’s why I would always urge people to only turn their ballot over to somebody who they trust, and to make sure that person takes some time to fill out that information in their presence so they know that person is being accountable to them,” Alexander said.

The potential payoff

For the 2024 election, the state GOP plan is focused on grassroots efforts — recruiting volunteers to go door-to-door to build relationships with voters and later collect ballots.

That trust-building might be key to convincing people that their ballots will be counted. The party will also continue to recruit election observers — something anyone is entitled to do — and is assigning an election integrity chairperson and a lawyer in each county.

“We will continue to do the work that we’re doing to make sure that individuals are voting by every legal means necessary,” Patterson said.

But for all the Republican Party’s plans, they aren’t likely to have much impact on statewide elections. There are about 27 million people who are eligible to vote in California, and of the 22 million who are registered 47% are Democrats, 24% are Republicans, and 23% have no party preference.

In California’s 2022 general election, data analyzed by the Center for Inclusive Democracy shows a higher percentage of registered Republican voters turned out than Democrats — 61% compared to 53% — but Newsom still won by nearly 20 percentage points.

But in some swing congressional and legislative races, Republicans narrowly won in Democratic-majority districts last November. For instance, U.S. Rep. John Duarte, a Modesto Republican, beat Democrat Adam Gray by 564 votes in one of the closest congressional races in the country in a district where President Biden beat Trump by 14.5 percentage points. And Republican Assemblymember Josh Hoover ousted Democrat Ken Cooley by 1,383 votes in a Sacramento-area district.  

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. 

Sameea Kamal is a reporter at CalMatters covering the state Capitol and California politics. She joined CalMatters in June 2021 from the Los Angeles Times, where she was a News Desk editor. Sameea was one of three 2020 IRE Journalist of Color fellows, and previously worked for the Center for Public Integrity. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.