‘Ballot Harvesting’ Helped Flip Seven US House Races in California After Election Day

December 4, 2018 Updated: December 4, 2018

Recent changes to state election law have transformed California’s election system into one that’s no longer decided on Election Day, but in the weeks after.

The changes, specifically to mail-in ballots, led to Democrats flipping seven U.S. House seats after Nov. 6, and Republicans crying foul over the newly legalized practice of “ballot harvesting.”

Speaking to the Washington Post on Nov. 29, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said the string of lost elections “defies logic.”

“We had a lot of wins that night, and three weeks later, we lost basically every contested California race. This election system they have, I can’t begin to understand what ballot harvesting is,” Ryan said.

In 2016, the California Legislature passed AB-1921, a measure that altered the state’s vote-by-mail procedures to allow any third party to collect and turn in another person’s completed ballot. Previously, only close relatives or someone living in the same household could collect and return someone else’s ballot.

The seemingly slight adjustment allowed for activists and political parties to deliver ballots to targeted would-be voters, solicit a completed ballot, and return it to a voting site without a secure chain of custody. While the upside is increased voter participation, the risk of fraud and coercion is more than a partisan concern.

At least 16 states expressly regulate ballot harvesting, or ballot collection, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states limit who can turn in another person’s ballot, while others ban the practice entirely.

In 2016, Arizona passed a law making the collection of early voting ballots by political operatives a felony after it led to voter fraud. In 2012, a presidential election year, a political advocacy group—not directly affiliated with a campaign—was collecting ballots while its members were posing as election workers.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Arizona ban, but it was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the single-party run state of California, unlimited ballot harvesting, combined with other post-Election Day ballot-counting provisions, revolutionized the state’s midterm elections with the results skewing exclusively for Democrats.

Those additional provisions included allowing mail-in ballots to be counted up to three days after Nov. 6, loose guidelines for accepting provisional ballots, and extended deadlines for absentee voters to be notified of mismatching signatures on ballots and voter-registration records so they could be fixed. Mismatching signatures also can be a telltale sign of fraud.

According to election returns, more than 40 percent of the state’s 12.5 million total votes were counted after Nov. 6—a striking development, considering mail-in ballots were once intended to assist those who couldn’t physically vote in a polling booth due to disability, infirmity, or residing out of state, such as overseas military personnel.

Ron Nehring, former chairman of the California Republican Party, characterized the development as an abuse.

“Mail voting has completely warped California elections. We don’t have Election Day. We have two election months: the month ballots are out in the field, and the month after, while they’re all sorted out. No courage to fix this,” Nehring tweeted Nov. 26.

In one case, two-term incumbent California GOP congressman David Valadao was firmly ahead of his Democratic opponent, T.J. Cox, by 6,000 votes, or 8 percent, after polls closed Nov. 6. The Associated Press declared Valadao the winner of the rural District 21 race, but later retracted the announcement. After Election Day, ballots continued pouring in for Cox until he finally defeated Valadao by 843 votes–three weeks later.

On Nov. 29, Ryan said, “when you have candidates that win the absentee-ballot vote, win the day of the vote and then lose three weeks later because of provisionals, that’s really bizarre. And so I just think that’s a very, very strange outcome.”

Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, responded on Twitter, “in California, we make sure every ballot is properly counted and accounted for. That’s not ‘bizarre,’ that’s DEMOCRACY.”

Ground zero for California was Orange County, where Republicans lost every incumbent seat in the longtime Southern California conservative stronghold.

After polls closed Nov. 6, Orange County Republican Mimi Walters was ahead of Democrat Katie Porter by 6,200 votes. But Porter ended up winning the race after a tidal wave of post-Election Day ballot-counting. The same fate befell GOP Rep. Jeff Denham in District 10. Other Republican House losses included Steve Knight, Dana Rohrabacher, and Diane Harkey.

One of the more curious results occurred in District 39, where Orange County hopeful Young Kim, who would have been the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress, saw her sizable Election Day lead morph into a 3.2 percent loss after Nov. 6.

Young Kim (R) is surrounded by supporters
Republican Congressional candidate in California’s 39th District Young Kim (R) is surrounded by supporters and media as she arrives at an election night event in Rowland Heights, Calif., on Nov. 6, 2018. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Shawn Steel, California’s committeeman for the Republican National Committee, reacted to Kim’s stunning loss in a Nov. 27 editorial.

“How does a 14-point Republican lead disappear?” Steel asked. “Merciless and unsparing, California Democrats have systematically undermined California’s already-weak voter protection laws to guarantee permanent one-party rule.”

But ballot harvesting isn’t just a suspicious tactic for California’s Democratic political machine to use against Republicans. According to the investigative news website Washington Babylon, California Democrats have been harvesting ballots against each other in primary elections.

In a Dec. 28, 2017, interview, long before the November midterms, Democratic state assembly candidate Ron Birnbaum said he was the victim of ballot harvesting conducted by his Democratic primary opponent, Wendy Carrillo.

“Third parties, such as campaigns or paid field operations, can now bother or cajole or potentially intimidate voters into giving them their ballots. The most susceptible to this intimidation are those least likely to know how to report it or protect themselves from it. There is very little to stop tampering with ballots, vote-buying or even discarding of ballots,” Birnbaum said.

“Ultimately, this is a non-partisan issue in that it helps candidates with more resources have an easier time winning elections, regardless of affiliation. That said, the [vote-harvesting] bill was passed on virtually a party-line vote in the legislature,” he added.