Ballot Harvesting: What Is It? How Does It Work?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed March 17, 2020
As an increasing number of states have made mail-in and absentee voting more accessible to citizens, more people are voting using absentee ballots. Despite the increased convenience for voters, not every voter is able or willing to get their absentee ballot to an official polling station or postal facility.
Rules depend on the state in which a voter resides. An absentee voter may be able to designate someone to submit their absentee ballot for them, such as:
- A family member
- A legal guardian
- A caregiver
- Another person allowed by law
Although most states have policies regulating voters' ability to designate another individual to return their ballot, the policies can vary drastically. Still, some states do not have any policy regarding third-party ballot returns. That's where ballot harvesting comes in.
What is Ballot Harvesting?
To increase voter participation, various organizations in multiple states have made active and coordinated efforts to collect absentee voters' ballots during elections. Then they drop them off at polling places or election offices.
This practice, known as ballot harvesting, has been effective and, unsurprisingly, has generated controversy.
Some see the practice of ballot harvesting as a voter service that has long-assisted elderly voters and Native American voters living on remote reservations. Others see it is a political tool that can easily lend itself to fraud.
Nearly every U.S. citizen has the right to vote. However, many citizens are unable to get to a polling place during election time for various reasons such as:
- Military service
- Injury or illness
- Business travel
To accommodate voters, all states have a protocol for early and/or absentee voting.
Although every U.S. state provides its voters with absentee ballots, there are different types of absentee ballots, and some have different requirements than others. The different types of absentee voting are "no-excuse" and "qualified."
Most states in the U.S. do not require a voter to provide a reason why the voter cannot make it to a polling place on election day. These "no-excuse" states will mail a paper ballot to voters upon request. Voters can then fill out the ballot and send it back to the election office.
Other states require voters to fulfill specific requirements before the voter is eligible to receive an absentee ballot. In the state of Arkansas, for example, voters are only eligible for an absentee ballot if they are "unavoidably absent" from their polling site by being:
- Physically disabled
- Serving in the armed forces or a dependent family member of someone who is serving
- Temporarily living outside of the U.S. during an election
There are currently three states in the U.S. that conduct state and federal voting by mail-in ballot:
- Hawaii will start doing its elections via mail with the 2020 primary elections
In these states, election ballots are automatically mailed to registered voters a few weeks before the election. Voters can then fill out their ballots and deposit them in a nearby ballot mailbox before the election. In some regions, individuals other than the voters are legally allowed to submit voter's ballots, which lends itself to ballot harvesting.
Is Ballot Harvesting Legal?
This leads ballot harvesting to generate controversy, praise, and criticism from people across the political spectrum. Some practices that are uniformly illegal across the nation include:
- Filling out a ballot for another voter
- Intimidating a voter into voting for or against a candidate
- Influence a voter's decision
In practice, ballot harvesting does tend to increase the number of votes tallied within a given election without much controversy. However, voting laws vary significantly from state to state, and small differences in voting law can significantly impact an election.
California Laws on Ballot Harvesting
California voters can legally "designate any person to return [their] ballot to the elections official from whom it came or to the precinct board at a polling place within a jurisdiction."
Both Republican and Democratic organizations took advantage of this law in the 2018 elections, but Democrats appeared to prioritize ballot harvesting more than their Republican counterparts and were able to take over many offices that were previously controlled by Republicans.
North Carolina Laws on Ballot Harvesting
North Carolina voting law states that it is a Class I felony for "any person except the voter's near relative or the voter's verifiable legal guardian to assist the voter to vote an absentee ballot when the voter is voting an absentee ballot," outside of special and specific circumstances.
Recent elections in North Carolina have shone a light on potential abuses of ballot harvesting tactics, including:
- Mishandling filled and unfilled ballots
- Influencing voters' decisions
- Illegally filling out voters' ballots
What Voters Should Know
For many citizens, voting is how they participate in their local, state, and federal politics. For some voters, absentee voting and ballot harvesting are ways to ensure their voices are heard in government. Like any system, however, these different forms of voting and vote-collecting can be abused.
If voters are unsure about how to handle their ballots during an election, they can contact their local election office. If voters suspect their ballots are being handled illegally, they may want to consider seeking out the services of a knowledgeable and experienced legal professional.