It’s time for progressives to make up their minds: either they’re concerned about voter fraud, or not.
Right now, even as liberals fret over potential voter fraud in North Carolina, where vote irregularities favored the Republican candidate, they’re also celebrating Democratic victories in California—a state whose system could easily be susceptible to the same kind of voter fraud concerns.
These elections brought the issue of “ballot harvesting” to light—a process in which political organizers collect absentee ballots from voters and deliver them to polling places en masse. Due to a change in California law in 2016, this was legal in the Golden State during the 2018 election—and may have played a factor in the massive blue wave in California.
In North Carolina, ballot harvesting is illegal, but there are now accusations that political operatives working for the Republican Party in the state’s 9th Congressional District used this tactic to collect votes from minority voters, then failed to cast them.
Unfortunately, ballot harvesting—even when legal—makes our system more susceptible to such misdeeds. Only 16 states currently regulate ballot harvesting, according to RealClearInvestigations, and the rules from state to state vary wildly.
It’s a practice long used by special-interest groups and both major political parties that is viewed either as a voter service that boosts turnout or a nefarious activity that subjects voters to intimidation and makes elections vulnerable to fraud.
This issue became nationally acknowledged due to controversies in California and North Carolina.
“California just defies logic to me,” outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a Washington Post live event. “We were only down 26 seats the night of the election, and three weeks later, we lost basically every California contested race. This election system they have—I can’t begin to understand what ‘ballot harvesting’ is.”
With what one Republican official called an “unprecedented” number of vote-by-mail drop-offs in this election, it isn’t hard to see how Democrats were able to use ballot harvesting to swing elections.
“Legislative Democrats have rewritten election rules in their favor to expand voter eligibility, automatically register every voter, eliminate voting integrity laws, and encourage questionable campaign tactics, such as ballot harvesting,” wrote Shawn Steel, a former chairman of the California Republican Party and a committeeman for the Republican National Committee.
But the problem doesn’t just exist for Republicans.
In the case of North Carolina, Democrats understandably cried foul. But many are trying to square the circle, saying that voter fraud is both not a problem and also a clever means of voter suppression that may have influenced the outcome of this election.
The rhetorical jiujitsu they’ve used is to draw a distinction between voter fraud and “electoral fraud.”
“What happened in North Carolina was not ‘voter fraud,'” Minnesota State University Moorhead professor Barbara Headrick said, according to Fox News. “When you hear voter fraud, it means someone who should not be able to vote is voting. North Carolina has election fraud. Legitimate voters had their votes potentially altered or not turned in.”
This is a false distinction.
The fact is, ballot harvesting and other similar practices deserve more public attention given their potential to impact elections.
Whether a person’s vote was thrown away or negated by illegal voters, both problems strike at the integrity and legitimacy of our democratic elections.
Given what is at stake in politics, there is always an incentive for bad actors to manipulate the system and steal elections.
A process where middlemen control the ballot—which can pass through many hands—is more susceptible to manipulation than a system where a ballot is directly submitted. It is especially problematic when it goes through the hands of a party operative.
This system conjures up an old issue that used to plague electoral politics in the 19th century before there were standardized voting forms. Party hatchet men would hand out false ballots to voters and deceive them about which party they were voting for.
Voter fraud is certainly not a new issue.
Both voter fraud and voter intimidation played a key role in the 1876 presidential campaign, for instance, where both Republicans and Democrats engaged in unseemly electioneering shenanigans.
Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden, but accusations of widespread election fraud threw the contest into dispute.
Ulysses S. Grant famously said of the election: “The country cannot afford to have the result tainted by suspicion of illegal or false returns.”
The nation ultimately solved the matter—which nearly ended in a second civil war—with an unseemly compromise between the parties that led to the end of Reconstruction.
This scandal and others pushed Americans to reassess how they conducted the voting process and led to the adoption of the secret ballot in states across the country. It was nearly universal by 1890.
Human nature being what it is means we are unlikely to eliminate bad actors—whether Democrat, Republican, or any other political party—but we can reduce the shadows that they thrive in.
Given the heated nature of modern politics, it would be wise to create a system that is free from suspicion in our own time. And despite calls to the contrary, voter fraud is a nationwide issue as this Heritage Foundation database demonstrates, with ballot harvesting just being one way among many for crooks to cheat the system.
It should be an issue that we seek to tackle for the sake of upholding our republican institutions.
Stolen votes and the suspicion of fraud undermine the notion of the rule of law based on consent and justice. Americans have not always upheld that standard, but that doesn’t mean that we should waver in our commitment to it.
Perhaps the mess in North Carolina will be a wake-up call for those on the left who think voter fraud, or “election fraud,” or whatever they’d like to call it, isn’t a problem facing our nation.