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Mitch McConnell On NC Ballot Harvesting: Why Is It Legal In California?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week questioned why absentee mail ballot harvesting - which is illegal in North Carolina - is OK in California

Three years ago, former California governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a bill allowing anyone to pick up a voter’s absentee mail ballot. Neal Kelley, who's with Orange County’s registrar of voters, said the law dramatically changed the November 2018 election.

"A third-party campaign, a candidate running for office, really anybody, can knock on a door, pick up a ballot from a voter and return it to a polling place or put in the mail," Kelley said.

And that’s what happened in 2018, with political operatives bringing several boxes of mail ballots brought to his office, he said.

[Related Content: Political Operative McCrae Dowless Arrested, Charged In 9th District Probe]

"I would say probably in the neighborhood of thousands of those were picked up, delivered and dropped off," Kelley said.

Orange County – south of Los Angeles — used to be a Republican stronghold. But in last year’s election, Democrats swept all seven Congressional seats there. Many California Republicans said the GOP losses there were the result of ballot harvesting, as late-arriving Democrats ballots gave their candidates the edge.

Credit The News & Observer
File: Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowles refused to testify at the NC Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh on Feb. 18. Dowless was arrested Wednesday for illegally harvesting absentee mail ballots in 2016 and 2018.

Earlier this week, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell spoke about the North Carolina Board of Election's vote to hold a new election in the 9th Congressional District because absentee mail ballots were illegally harvested. McConnell spoke about that decision and the issue of ballot harvesting overall.

“Now, for years and years, every Republican who dared to call for commonsense safeguards for Americans’ ballots was demonized by Democrats and their allies," McConnell said. "We were hit with left-wing talking points insisting that voter fraud wasn’t real. That fraud just didn’t happen."

A widely circulated Tweet of part of the speech by Vox journalist Aaron Rupar said McConnell was “shamelessly” blaming Democrats for the 9th District fraud.

There was similar sentiment from the Huffington Post.

And Dan McCready, who is running again for the 9th District, issued a statement calling McConnell’s words “shameful.” He said what happened in the 9th District was election fraud – not voter fraud — since the evidence has shown that political operatives, not voters, were behind any scheme. 

Most Republican efforts against fraud focus on in-person voting and a desire for photo ID – not mail ballots. Experts have said in-person fraud is almost non-existent.

But in his speech, McConnell pivoted from North Carolina’s 9th District to the 2016 law allowing ballot collection in California.

“But I have noted with interest that Democrats’ new focus on this practice has yet to extend to California — where it is a completely legal, common practice," said McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. "California allows anyone – not just family members, anyone – to show up at a polling place or election office with ballots that are not theirs. "

He criticized the Democrats for proposing an elections bill, which, among other things, would make Election Day a national holiday. He said the bill would not make ballot harvesting illegal nationwide.

“Maybe that helps explain why, when House GOP leaders expressed concern over ballot harvesting in California, the state’s Democrat Secretary of State mocked their concern by saying, 'What they call strange and bizarre, we call democracy,’ " McConnell said. "And now, ballot harvesting has thrown out an election result in the House of Representatives."

Ballot collection, or harvesting, benefits people who are far from mailboxes or who have mobility issues, said Rick Hasen of the University of California Irvine. But he said the tradeoff is a greater chance of fraud, such as ballots being stolen.

[Related Content: Mark Harris Says He Is Not Running In New Congressional Election]

"If all we were concerned about was eliminating the potential risk of fraud, then we would get rid of not only laws that allow people to collect absentee ballots," Hasen said. "Then we would get rid of all absentee balloting as a whole."

Which leads to the question of whether more states will eventually allow ballot collection, or harvesting, if you want to call it that. 

Western states are on the vanguard of mail voting, with three states – Oregon, Washington and Colorado providing all registered voters a mail ballot. 

Washington allows anyone to pick up and drop off a ballot, and there is no limit as to how many ballots someone can deliver. Colorado also allows ballot harvesting – but one person can only drop off 10 ballots at a time.

In Arizona last year, a three-judge panel rejected a push by Democrats to allow mail ballot collection.

In North Carolina, it’s still illegal of course – and it led the board of elections last week to call for a new election.

McCready is running. Republican Mark Harris said Tuesday he will not.

On Wednesday, Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless was indicted on obstruction of justice and possessing of an absentee ballot. 

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.