OAKLAND, Calif. — Leaders of the embattled California Republican Party are reversing course during the Covid-19 pandemic to demand Gov. Gavin Newsom ban a voting practice they until recently endorsed.
The Republican leaders vowed to boost their “ballot harvesting” efforts — to allow people to pick up and deliver absentee ballots that others have cast — after a Democratic thumping in the 2018 midterms. But they’re now arguing that it’s "an intolerable risk to public health and safety."
The abrupt turnaround comes weeks before a special election for a crucial House seat in Los Angeles County to fill the vacancy left by Democrat Katie Hill’s resignation. California Republican Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are among those asking Newsom to end “ballot harvesting’’ in the solidly-blue state.
The practice allows party volunteers to collect mail-in ballots and submit them in groups to polling places or election offices. Republicans blame the Democrats’ ballot collecting as one factor for their 2018 midterm woes, which saw them lose seven seats.
Patterson acknowledged in an interview that ballot harvesting “is something that we did across our state to get our endorsed candidate across the finish line’’ in some races for the March 3 primary. Still, Patterson noted that “January was a very different time than we’re living in now … in a situation we’ve never been in before."
She called ballot harvesting “a threat to the health and well-being of Californians" in a letter to Newsom last week. She argued that “it directly violates social distancing measures and causes the exchange of a physical item that has been in a person’s household and likely contains saliva which is known to spread COVID-19.’’
Samantha Zager, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, also demanded Newsom take action, noting that the governor “had already issued an Executive Order that the special election would be conducted as an all-mail election to avoid the risks of in-person voting in light of COVID-19.” She argued that “ballot harvesting — which involves operatives going to strangers’ doors to collect ballots — presents California voters with the exact same health risks (or worse) as in-person voting,’’ while violating the governor’s stay-at-home order.
And McCarthy tweeted a message last week to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla: “Now is not the time for gamesmanship. You owe it to the voters of Los Angeles, Ventura, and Riverside to announce no ballot harvesting for the upcoming special elections in those areas. #PeopleOverPolitics #InItTogether.”
Newsom’s office referred questions to Padilla. The state elections chief, a former Democratic state senator, said that the practice presents no danger to voters — and may actually be a boon for many voters during the current pandemic, even in an election that will be all vote-by-mail.
“While traditional polling locations are harder to come by during the Covid-19 pandemic, voters must increasingly rely upon vote-by-mail ballots. California law gives citizens a variety of options for casting their vote-by-mail ballots — including the freedom to designate someone they trust to return their ballot,’’ Padilla spokesperson Sam Mahood told POLITICO. “A pandemic is no time to make it harder for citizens to cast their vote-by-mail ballots.”
The ballots collected by party volunteers are first signed and sealed by voters themselves to prevent fraud and to protect their privacy, said Democratic strategist Roger Salazar. While voters often handed ballots face to face in the past, Salazar said volunteers will now pick up ballots at a front door or in a mailbox to protect the health of voters — much like a grocery delivery.
“It’s not different from driving someone to the voting booth — it just allows people who can’t get out and vote to cast their ballots,’’ he said.
California Democrats are calling Patterson’s new concerns especially hypocritical — coming in the weeks before voters in the CA-25 district will vote to fill Hill’s seat. The contest in the swing district, which flipped Democratic in 2018, is considered a tossup between Democratic Asssemblywoman Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia.
The “ballot harvesting” practice was used by California Democrats in the 2018 election, and party officials said it not only aided older and disabled voters, but proved an effective ground game in increasing turnout.
California Republicans cried foul. But Patterson acknowledged Democrats had out-organized her party on "ballot harvesting,” and announced that the GOP would ramp up its own efforts in 2020. She told the Los Angeles Times in February that state party officials had lined up 17,000 volunteers for a fall harvesting drive.
“We certainly need to do better,” Patterson told a local radio station, as RealClearPolitics reported. "We’re getting beat at [ballot harvesting], so the argument that we did it well, I mean, we just can’t make that argument.”
At a campaign event in January at a Simi Valley cafe, Garcia, the CA-25 candidate, spoke specifically about “ballot harvesting." He told supporters his campaign was exploring the technique, according to a video of the event obtained by POLITICO.
He said "it sounds dirty, feels dirty, sounds illegal, but it’s completely legal, of course, in California." But he also said Hill won because she had 200 to 300 volunteers knocking on doors in the month leading up to the 2018 election who built relationships before collecting ballots.
"So then how do you combat that? You do it yourself, right? It’s legal," he said. He explained how he had 200 volunteers on the streets communicating with voters but that “Republicans probably aren’t going to hand over their ballots. So we’re going to get people to vote."
Garcia’s campaign referred questions about whether he would still use ballot harvesting to the National Republican Congressional Committee. NRCC spokesperson Torunn Sinclair did not address Garcia’s current position on ballot harvesting and said Newsom should be asked to clarify whether his stay-at-home order applies to the practice.
Patterson said the state party’s position is that no campaign should collect ballots, regardless of the party.
Veteran Democratic strategist Garry South said “the GOP caterwauling about ‘ballot harvesting’ is utterly disingenuous.”
“They deliberately use terms to make it seem like a practice that is illegal or shady, when it is in fact a perfectly legal and common method to collect absentee ballots,” South said. He notes that “it’s ironic that the highest-profile recent case of illegally collecting absentee ballots was actually a Republican in North Carolina,’’ where the effort “invalidated a Congressional election.”
In that case, prosecutors in 2019 filed felony charges against an operative who worked for GOP candidate Mark Harris, alleging that L. McCrae Dowless Jr. committed voter fraud in connection with illegal possession of absentee ballots. Harris’ election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District was eventually overturned.
Republican strategist Mike Madrid says the California GOP may be trying to set the stage for arguing in advance that “this is an illegitimate election.’ But that, he suggests, that would be another head-scratching strategy, which has already withered to third party status in California — now representing barely 24 percent of the electorate, compared to 45 percent for Democrats and 25 percent for No Party Preference voters.
Madrid says that in the Covid-19 pandemic, “the best way, the healthiest, safest and securest way to maintain integrity and elections is to do an all-mail ballot election.’’
“You can’t ask people to go stand and wait in line to vote,’’ a move that forced hundreds in Los Angeles to do just that in the March primary, he said. California can’t afford a repeat of that scenario, which is “far more dangerous than ballot harvesting,’’ he said.