When electors vote by mail, they typically have a few options for returning their completed ballots: by mail, by dropping them off at a polling location, or by delivering them to a designated drop box.
Ballot harvesting, also known as ballot trafficking or third-party ballot collection, occurs when individuals take advantage of these options to “harvest” or collect voters’ completed ballots and return them on behalf of the voter. While it may seem like a kind gesture to assist voters in submitting their mail ballots, ballot harvesting can severely undermine the fairness and honesty of elections.
How Ballot Harvesting Works
Ballot harvesting begins when a voter is given or requests to receive his or her ballot by mail. Once the voter’s ballot arrives, he or she has the opportunity to complete and return the ballot before the ballot return deadline.
While the voter still has possession of his or her ballot, a ballot harvester will approach the individual (often with the aid of a voter list to know which voters received their ballots by mail) to offer the voter assistance in completing and/or returning the ballot. If the voter consents, the ballot harvester will collect the completed ballot and return it for the voter. Ballot harvesters will repeat this process to deliver as many ballots as possible before the deadline, which is usually Election Day.
Ballot Harvesting Threatens the Fairness and Honesty of Elections
Ballot harvesting currently presents one of the greatest threats to election integrity for multiple reasons.
Lack of Oversight
The first threat stems from the lack of oversight given to the handling of ballots in mail voting systems and the chain of custody that mail ballots pass through once they leave the supervision of election officials. During the election cycle, election administrators are tasked with maintaining and transporting thousands of ballots. But ballot harvesting puts this same power not in the hands of trained election officials but in the hands of private citizens with minimal accountability. Any number of issues can happen as a result, with little recourse for voters who are affected.
Chain of Custody and Bad Actors
Ballot harvesters often have ulterior motives and incentives for collecting and returning particular ballots. Due to the lack of administrative oversight, bad actors can determine the fate of the ballots they collect. Put simply, ballot harvesters have the ability to determine not only which ballots to collect, but also which ballots to return and which to discard. These harvesters can choose to return ballots belonging to registered voters of their preferred party and discard those that do not. Furthermore, ballot harvesters are often paid to collect ballots, adding an additional layer of concern for how it taints honest elections.
Another threat is the influence these ballot harvesters can have on how and if an elector votes. When a voter request to receive their ballot by mail, it does not necessarily mean that the voter will choose to complete and return their ballot. But when a ballot harvester approaches a voter who has yet to complete his or her ballot, the voter may feel pressured to vote a certain way or to vote in the first place when they otherwise would prefer not to participate.
Unlike when a voter casts his or her vote in person at a polling location in privacy, ballot harvesters are able to discuss with voters the candidates they should or should not vote for. Voters who have yet to make their decision may vote differently because of the ballot harvester’s influence. This infringes upon one of the most fundamental aspects of the American voting system – the secrecy of the ballot box.
Ballot Harvesting is Already Affecting Elections
Developments in California and North Carolina after the 2018 Midterm Elections brought ballot harvesting to the national spotlight.
In California, several Republican congressional candidates led their Democratic competitors on Election Night by thousands of votes. However, as election officials spent days and, in some cases weeks, after the election tabulating millions of ballots that were dropped off at polling locations on Election Day, these candidates ended up losing. Because California legalized ballot harvesting in 2016 with basically no restrictions,[i] a total of five million ballots – 40% of the total ballots cast – were dropped off at the polling locations on Election Day and were counted after election night. As several Republican candidates slowly saw their leads dwindle after the polls closed, it raised alarms concerning the fairness and honesty of the election due to ballot harvesting.
In North Carolina, the State Board of Elections refused to certify the 9th Congressional District race results after reporting substantial irregularities in the return of mail ballots. Eventually, news broke that McRae Dowless, a consultant to the Republican candidate whose victory was nullified, and his employees illegally harvested hundreds of ballots and discarded those that went against the Republican candidate. The State Board of Elections voided the election and ordered a new one on account of Dowless’ actions.
Additionally, the former Mayor of the City of San Luis, Arizona was sentenced in October 2022 for her role in an August 2020 Primary Election “ballot harvesting” scheme in Yuma County, Arizona where early ballots from other voters were collected and deposited into a ballot box on primary Election Day.
These three examples are only the beginning. Ballot harvesting has the potential to affect the highest and lowest election contests in the country.
Laws on Ballot Harvesting
States’ laws on ballot harvesting vary significantly, and with each new legislative cycle, these policies change and develop.
According to an assessment by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states and Washington, D.C. permit ballot harvesting so long as the voter designates the collector as his or her agent. These states include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas.
Many of these states limit this to family members, household members, or caregivers, and nine of them limit how many ballots an authorized person can return. Four states further limit how long those ballots can remain in the authorized person’s possession.
Eighteen states do not specify who specifically is authorized to return a voter’s completed ballot. This includes Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Beyond these, there are many nuances between the laws of the several states:
Ballot harvesting is a felony in Arizona and Georgia.[ii]
Alabama is the only state that expressly prohibits anyone other than the voter from returning the voter’s completed ballot.
North Dakota outlaws a ballot harvester’s ability to be compensated for collecting ballots.
Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, and South Carolina all prohibit a candidate or his or her employee from serving as a voter’s designated agent.
Lastly, North Carolina prohibits the public release of the names of voters who have requested to receive their ballot by mail until Election Day in efforts to prevent harvesters from targeting specific voters.
LDF is strongly opposed to ballot harvesting for how it jeopardizes free and fair elections, undermines ballot secrecy, and allows voters to be wrongly influenced by bad actors. In states that offer mail voting, voters already have several ways to return their completed mail ballots that do not undermine election integrity the way that ballot harvesting does. The lack of administrative oversight in mail voting affords too great an opportunity for ballot harvesters to undermine the fairness and honesty of elections by interfering with the free will and autonomy of voters who alone have the responsibility to determine who to vote for or whether to vote at all.
Last updated December 19, 2022
[i] See California Assembly Bill 1921 (2016).
[ii] Arizona made ballot harvesting a class 6 felony in 2016 with the enactment of H.B. 2023. The law was immediately challenged. In June 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law and found that criminal penalties for unlawful ballot harvesting are a valid exercise of legislative power to prevent voter fraud and do not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Georgia recently made ballot harvesting a felony with the enactment of S.B. 202. See Senate Bill 202 As Passed, Georgia General Assembly, 95 (Mar. 25, 2021), available at: https://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/59827.