Did ballot harvesting doom Republicans? More likely, just hard work by Democrats

Stung by their losses in state and federal races, some California Republicans have coined the term “ballot harvesting” to describe how Democrats were able to get more votes and win more seats in the November election.

In particular focus are previous GOP House seats that went from red to blue, including the Valley’s 21st congressional, in which Democrat TJ Cox scored a come-from-behind victory to beat incumbent Republican David Valadao of Hanford.

Cox TJ
Fresno Democrat TJ Cox currently leads incumbent David Valadao, R-Hanford, in the race for California’s 21st Congressional District seat. Cox Campaign Cox Campaign

Ballot harvesting describes a new aspect of the state Election Code — Section 3017, which went into effect Jan. 1. It allows anyone to return a sealed and voter-signed ballot envelope to a county clerk’s office or polling place. Previously, only a relative could turn in a ballot for a voter.

The code expressly says no person can be compensated for the number of ballots that get turned in. The code is silent on whether a person can earn an hourly wage collecting ballots. Hence, the nefarious description of ballot collection as “harvesting.”

Over the weekend a top GOP party official in Orange County groused to the Associated Press how 250,000 ballots were turned in on Election Day as “a direct result of ballot harvesting.”

There is no evidence of any wrongdoing in Orange County, or anywhere else. However, there is another explanation for the results: Democrats outworked the GOP.

The irony is that Republicans have long been champions of getting voters registered and using voting by mail as the means to cast a ballot. In fact, the November election showed some conservative candidates winning office in the first pass through the ballots, based off the early returns that skewed toward the GOP. But ballots turned in on Election Day, as well as provisional ballots that required more processing, largely broke for Democrats.

Cox trailed Valadao by 5,000 votes in the initial tally on election night. But further tallies in the days after allowed Cox to jump into the lead. Last week he claimed victory with a 500-plus vote margin.

Having someone turn in a sealed ballot in no way nullifies the sanctity of the process. Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth points out that every voter has constitutional right to a secret ballot. “If a voter is going to allow someone to return their ballot, they must seal it and sign it so that it cannot be tampered with,” she said. Her office did not see any tampered envelopes in the November election.

Michael Evans, head of the Democratic Party in Fresno County, said ballot collection definitely occurred in the Valley, especially rural areas like that make up the 21st District. “We are a democracy. Our first goal should be to ensure it is easy for every person to vote.”

Plus, he added, “both parties have equal access” to using collections as a means to turn in ballots.

Republican leaders don’t share the belief that the process works. Fred Vanderhoof, chairman of the Fresno County GOP, contends the potential for fraud exists; never mind that Orth, while holding a nonpartisan office, is herself a registered Republican.

For one thing, Vanderhoof explained, elections officials are not present when a ballot collector shows up at a voter’s home. Who knows what gets said? For another, he said the rules governing elections are drawn by a state government controlled by Democrats to benefit their party. “The amount of voter fraud is probably massive throughout the state.”

But that reasoning is based on an assumption of guilt, casts unfair aspersions on election officers like Orth, and cynically places doubt on the process.

There is a phrase for such a reaction. It’s called sour grapes.