Terry McLaughlin: California to start spring cleaning with voter rolls
“Ballot harvesting” refers to a practice in which organized groups or individuals collect absentee or vote-by-mail ballots from voters and mail or deliver them to a designated spot. Illegal in most states, this practice became legal in California in 2016 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a change to Section 3017 of the California Election Code.
For decades the California Election Code allowed mail-in ballots to be returned on behalf of a voter by a designated family member or a person living in the same household only. In 2016 Democratic legislators changed that section of the code to read that a “vote-by-mail voter may designate any person to return their ballot.” There are no eligibility requirements for an individual who collects and returns vote-by-mail ballots; that designated person could represent a political party, campaign, church, or business, be a non-resident, or non-citizen.
The Election Code does not limit the number of ballots any person may return, whether it be one or one thousand. The code does not preclude an individual who is returning ballots for others from being paid to do so, as long as they do “not receive any form of compensation based on the number of ballots that the person returns” and an “organization shall not provide compensation on this basis.” Theoretically, compensation could be paid at an hourly or set rate, as long as it is not based upon the number of ballots returned.
The California Election Code itself contains contradictions, as it requires that the vote-by-mail identification envelope contain the name and signature of the person authorized to return the ballot, and their relationship to the voter. However, section 3011( c) of the code states “a ballot shall not be disqualified solely because the person authorized to return it did not provide on the identification envelope his or her name, relationship to the voter, or signature.” Thus any person could return any ballot without identifying themselves as required by law, and the vote may still be counted.
Another conflict appears in section 3017(a)(2): “The person designated shall return the ballot in person, or put the ballot in the mail, no later than three days after receiving it from the voter or before the close of the polls on election day, whichever time period is shorter. Notwithstanding subdivision (d), a ballot shall not be disqualified from being counted solely because it was returned or mailed more than three days after the designated person received it from the voter.” But subdivision (d) contradicts section (a) by clearly stating that “The provisions of this section are mandatory, not directory, and a ballot shall not be counted if it is not delivered in compliance with this section.” So which is it?
Twenty seven questions were presented to the Riverside County Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer, by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, regarding the application of the California Election Code. Ms. Spencer’s answers clearly indicate that there is no provision in the Election Code requiring documentation of the vote-by-mail ballots’ chain of custody; no recording of information on the person delivering the ballots other than information provided on the identification envelopes, regardless of the number of ballots delivered — and if that information is omitted, the votes may still be counted; political campaigns, churches, or businesses could hire vendors to collect vote-by-mail ballots as long as they do not provide compensation based upon the number of ballots collected.
A similar inquiry was submitted to Nevada County’s Registrar of Voters by the chairman of the Nevada County Republican Party as to the code’s application in our county. In his written reply of March 20, Registrar Greg Diaz enclosed a copy of Riverside County’s responses to the questions and indicated that they parallel his own views on the subject.
Is there any reason to consider that ballot harvesting, illegal in most states, could expand the opportunities for the votes of ineligible voters to be counted? According to a recent settlement signed by the State of California and the County of Los Angeles in a 2017 federal lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch against Los Angeles County, there is reason for concern.
The settlement confirmed that despite the legal requirement to do so, neither Los Angeles County nor the State of California has been actively removing inactive voters from the registration rolls for the past 20 years. The lawsuit also confirmed that Los Angeles County has more than 1.5 million potentially ineligible voters on its rolls — more than one out of every five registrations in L.A. County likely belongs to a voter who has moved, is deceased, or is otherwise ineligible to vote. According to data provided by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Los Angeles County has a registration rate of 112 percent of its entire adult citizen population, and the State of California has a registration rate of approximately 101 percent of its age-eligible citizens. Eleven of California’s 58 counties have registration rates exceeding 100 percent of their eligible citizens.
Under the terms of this settlement, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla must instruct all county registrars to begin the process of removing these inactive registrations from their voter rolls. It’s unfortunate that a lawsuit was required to compel our elected officials to abide by the legal requirements of the Election Code, in an effort to ensure ballots are not being automatically provided to ineligible voters, vastly increasing the opportunity to circumvent the integrity of our elections.
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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