What Is Ballot Harvesting?

"Ballot harvesting" is collecting completed absentee ballots from voters and delivering them to polling places or election offices. These efforts often focus on helping elderly voters or people who live in remote areas ensure their ballot gets in on time.

An increasing number of states have made mail-in and absentee voting more accessible to citizens. So, more people are voting using absentee ballots. But not every absentee voter can easily deliver their absentee ballot to an official polling station or postal facility.

Some voters can have someone else submit their absentee ballot for them, such as:

  • A family member
  • A legal guardian
  • A caregiver

The rules depend on where you live. Some states, like Rhode Island and Wyoming, don't have policies addressing absentee ballot returns. But, most state laws include regulations on who can deliver an absentee ballot.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states explicitly allow someone to return an absentee ballot on another voter's behalf. Those states include:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • New York

Some states specify that only a family member, caregiver, or "designated bearer" can turn in someone else's absentee ballot. Ballot collection, also known as "ballot harvesting," happens in states that do not dictate who can deliver absentee ballots.

What is Ballot Harvesting?

Various organizations have 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 collecting or ballot harvesting, has been effective at increasing voter participation. But it has also generated controversy and concern about election fraud. Some see the practice of ballot collection as a voter service that can help many groups, such as:

  • Elderly voters
  • People with disabilities
  • Native American voters living on remote reservations

Others see it as a political tool that can easily lead to voter fraud. Whether ballot harvesting is legal depends on your state's absentee voting laws and mail-in voting rules.

Absentee Voting

Nearly every U.S. citizen has the right to vote. But many can't get to a polling place during election time for in-person voting. This can happen for various reasons, such as:

  • Military service
  • Injury or illness
  • Vacation
  • Business travel

All states have protocols for early voting and absentee voting in general and primary elections. There are different types of absentee ballots, and some have different rules than others. The two main types of absentee voting are "no-excuse" and "qualified."

Most states in the U.S. do not require a voter to give a reason they can't vote in person on election day. These "no-excuse" states will mail a paper ballot to voters upon request. Voters can then fill out the ballot and return it to the election office. Or electors can place the completed ballot in a ballot drop box.

Other states require voters to fulfill specific requirements before the voter is eligible to get an absentee ballot. In Arkansas, for example, voters are only eligible for an absentee ballot if they are "unavoidably absent" from their polling site due to:

  • Illness
  • Physical disability
  • Serving in the armed forces or are a dependent family member of someone who is serving
  • Temporarily living outside of the U.S. during an election

Mail-in Voting

There are currently eight states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia that conduct state and federal voting entirely by mail-in ballot:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington

These states automatically mail election ballots 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, people other than the voters are legally allowed to submit voter ballots, which lends itself to ballot harvesting.

Is Ballot Harvesting Legal?

Only Alabama specifies that no one other than the absentee voter can return their mail ballot. But ballot harvesting can only happen in states that do not restrict who can turn in absentee ballots. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin don't outright bar ballot collection, but their state laws say that only voters can turn in their ballot.

Jurisdictions that allow ballot collection differ in the methods they allow. For example, some states ban compensation based on the number of absentee ballots returned.

Other states limit the number of ballots people can collect and deliver per election cycle. These states include:

  • Arkansas (3)
  • Colorado (10)
  • Florida (2)
  • Iowa (2)
  • Minnesota (3)
  • Montana (6)
  • New Jersey (Up to five if they are immediate family members living in the same household; otherwise, no more than three)
  • North Dakota (4)
  • Vermont (25)
  • West Virginia (2)

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
  • Influencing a voter's decision

In practice, ballot harvesting tends to increase the number of votes tallied within a given election without much controversy. But voting laws vary significantly from state to state, and slight differences in state laws can dramatically affect an election.

Below, we discuss Arizona, California, and North Carolina ballot harvesting rules.

Arizona Laws on Ballot Harvesting

In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Arizona state law prohibiting unions and advocacy organizations from collecting voters' mail-in ballots. Only family or household members or caregivers can return an absentee ballot on behalf of the voter. Critics of the court's decision felt the ban infringed on the Voting Rights Act.

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 political parties used this law in the 2018 elections. Democrats appeared to focus on ballot harvesting more than their Republican counterparts and were able to take over many Republican-held offices. It appears this trend will change in upcoming elections.

North Carolina Laws on Ballot Harvesting

North Carolina voting law states it's a Class I felony for "any person except the voter's near relative or the voter's verifiable legal guardian to help 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 shed 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 take part in local, state, and federal politics. For some voters, absentee voting and ballot harvesting ensure their voices are heard in government. Like any system, people can abuse these different forms of voting and vote-collecting.

Contact your local election office if you're unsure how to handle your ballot during an election. If you wish to help others turn in their absentee ballots but aren't sure if it's legal in your state, consider seeking the services of a knowledgeable and experienced legal professional.

Was this helpful?