Data Wonk

Is Ballot Harvesting A Problem?

Kleefisch says so. The only two claims of this, both in other states, involved Republicans.

By - Nov 3rd, 2021 02:15 pm
Rebecca Kleefisch. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-2018.

Rebecca Kleefisch. Photo from the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2017-2018.

Former Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor and current candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch caused a stir in a speech to Republicans in Door County. According to an account in the Milwaukee Journal, in a speech meant to be secret during the October 23rd weekend, she told her audience of Republicans that as a candidate she would aggressively practice so-called “ballot harvesting” and hire “mercenaries” to help in her campaign:

Ballot harvesting in Wisconsin is not technically illegal. Democrats do it non-stop and they go hard. Republicans must go harder. … Democrats hire mercenaries. Republicans rely on sweet little volunteers to do the exact same things. We must hire mercenaries.

Once elected governor, Kleefisch told her audience, she would make these practices illegal.

This generated an immediate reaction from Kevin Nicholson, a possible rival for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. He described Kleefisch’s statement “as dumb as a bag of hammers. … ballot harvesting, which is the breaking of the legal chain of custody of ballots by political operatives, erodes peoples’ faith in elections,”

“Ballot harvesting,” the preferred Republican name for someone other than the voter delivering an absentee ballot to a polling station, has come under increasing Republican ire in recent years. Likely contributing to this is Donald Trump’s campaign prior to the 2020 election to establish the groundwork for his intention to claim fraud if he lost the election. For example, on April 14, 2020, he tweeted:


(The caps are Trump’s.)

It appears that voter fraud in connection with ballot collecting has been rare. The conservative Heritage Foundation maintains a database of electoral fraud. It appears that such fraud would be classified under “Fraudulent Use Of Absentee Ballots.” Four Wisconsin cases are listed under this category. None have any relationship to collecting ballots. The database is filled with such prohibited acts as voting by felons, double voting using two different jurisdictions, and voting using the name of a deceased spouse, but ballot harvesting fraud is hard to find.

The most notorious case of absentee ballot collection fraud stems from the 2018 election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional district. The scheme was masterminded by L. McCrae Dowless Jr. Ironically, Mr. Dowless was hired by the Republican candidate.

A New York Times article on the first hearing before the North Carolina State Board of Elections reported that “Kim Strach, the board’s executive director, and witnesses said that the operation involved forging signatures, completing ballots and mailing them from post offices near the voter’s home, and may have involved more than 1,000 absentee ballots or request forms.”

The Republican candidate had won the Congressional district by 907 votes, suggesting this might have been the rare case where fraud made a difference in the outcome of an election. Eventually, the election was run again. The Times article concludes that the “revelations were an embarrassment for North Carolina Republicans, who spent years crusading against fraud.”

A second accusation of improper activity related to ballot harvesting comes to us from Texas. On October 27, 2020, the San Antonio Express-News reported that Project Veritas had released a “heavily edited” video purporting to show a San Antonio political operator named Raquel Rodriguez “interfering as an elderly woman fills out her absentee ballot in Texas.”

Project Veritas specializes in targeting liberal organizations by sending people pretending to be supporters of these organizations. These individuals try to get admissions that the organization acted illegally, or at least unethically, which they surreptitiously recorded.

The article does not explain why Project Veritas would have targeted Rodriguez who is described as a Republican campaign employee and a consultant for Mauro Garza, the Republican challenger to U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio. It does report that in her Facebook account, she writes:

I immediately suspected something was wrong with this conversation. I chose to continue the conversation and ‘play along’ in order to discover the source and gather my own evidence that I could submit to legal authorities.

She added that the elderly woman she was seen helping was her aunt.

On January 13, 2021, the Houston Chronicle reported that state attorney general Ken Paxton announced the arrest of Rodriguez, charged with election tampering. The allegations were based on the video shot by Project Veritas.

Paxton also issued a press release:

What’s shown in the video is shocking and should alarm all Texans who care about election integrity. We are aggressively investigating the serious allegations and potential crimes that Project Veritas’s documentary audio and video recordings shed light on today. … Rodriguez was exposed in a Project Veritas video last fall while she engaged in vote harvesting leading up to the 2020 election.

I suspect that Paxton will find this case is tougher to prove than he thinks. Unless he can come up with evidence that Rodriguez actually took the actions she claims to have taken in the Project Veritas video, she can plausibly claim that her apparent admissions of guilt were lies aimed at pulling the leg of the Project Veritas person. There is no law that says that Project Veritas is owed the truth.

Contrary to Trump’s and Kleefisch’s claims, examples of corrupt ballot harvesting are very rare: There is just one solid example of fraudulent ballot collecting, the one orchestrated by the Republican operative McCrae Dowless in North Carolina. The Republican candidate’s son even warned his father about Dowless’ unsavory reputation, but the candidate hired him anyway. In addition, there is a second possible example, depending on whether one believes that Rodriguez was truthful in her conversations with the Project Veritas operative.

A Dowless-like scheme would be even harder to pull off in Wisconsin than North Carolina. For example, the voters must have given him their ballots unsealed, because he was able to fill in any lines the voter had left blank.

In addition, a Wisconsin voter can check the status of his or her ballot on a state-run website call MyVote Wisconsin. Thus, throwing out the ballots from voters of the wrong party would run the risk of leading to complaints from those voters and a likely criminal investigation.

Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, like those from Kleefisch and Trump, do come with a cost to our democracy, creating distrust that elections are honestly run. This can discourage voting and make it less likely that conscientious people will be willing to serve as election workers.

Categories: Data Wonk, Politics

One thought on “Data Wonk: Is Ballot Harvesting A Problem?”

  1. says:

    Yep, dat’s Ol’ Becky, out dere wit her scythe, harvesting votes…..groan.

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