- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DENVER — It’s harvest time in Colorado, and not just for pumpkins. Concerns are running high over door-to-door campaign workers asking voters for their mail-in ballots in what is known as “ballot harvesting.”

Now that all-mail voting is the law of the land in Colorado, the challenge for campaigns is to persuade voters to drop off or mail in their ballots — or hand them to the foot soldiers who turn up on their doorsteps offering to do it for them.

While it’s legal to give your ballot to someone else — one person may turn in up to 10 ballots — election watchers worry that the practice is ripe for abuse.

“These are totally unauthorized people coming to the door and gathering ballots and doing whatever they want to them,” said Marilyn Marks, president of the Aspen-based Citizen Center, which focuses on election integrity.

“If I have collected your ballot, I could do the honest thing and put it in the mail for you, or take it to the clerk’s office and drop it off — or I could look inside, open it gently, see how you voted, and if I didn’t like it, I could make some changes,” said Ms. Marks. “Or the other thing I could do, if I don’t like the way you’re voting, I could throw your ballot in the trash can.”

In a Denver Post op-ed, Ms. Marks urged voters not to turn over their ballots to strangers. Secretary of State Scott Gessler has asked voters to give their ballots only to people they know, and to verify afterward that their ballot was received on GoVoteColorado.com.

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Still, Mr. Gessler, a Republican, has made it clear that he’s not thrilled with the new voting law, the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act, which passed the Democrat-controlled legislature in 2013 with no Republican votes.

The measure makes Colorado the third state after Oregon and Washington with all-mail elections, and the first with both all-mail voting and same-day voter registration. The law also puts about 350,000 formerly inactive voters back into the system in an effort to increase participation. About 2.9 million Coloradans were mailed ballots last week, said Secretary of State’s Office spokesman Rich Coolidge.

“I guess my concern is you’ve got a loss of choice and you do have potential for vote fraud, and I don’t see any benefits,” Mr. Gessler said. “Colorado for the [2012] presidential election had the third-best turnout in the country. Washington and Oregon were 10th and 11th. We had better turnout than the all-mail ballot states. So why did we have to go to all-mail?”

Democrats argued that the law was needed to eliminate barriers to voting and encourage turnout, but Republicans quickly dubbed the measure the “voter-fraud bill.” This year’s vote is the first time the system has been used in a major election featuring statewide and legislative candidates for office.

Colorado has already grappled with ballot-harvesting concerns. In the June 24 vote on an anti-fracking ballot measure in Loveland, several residents said canvassers describing themselves as city workers were going door to door collecting ballots.

Other states have wrestled with unscrupulous ballot harvesters. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry signed a law in June 2013 that makes it a crime to pay canvassers by the number of mail-in ballots they collect.

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Colorado state Sen. Ted Harvey said he was concerned about the potential for voters being pressured to cast their ballots for certain candidates. He cited the example of union officials throwing voting parties at which members are expected to mark their ballots and leave them behind.

“Here, you know for a fact that every single voter is getting a mail-in ballot and the opportunity for abuse with that is overwhelming,” said Mr. Harvey.

At the same time, he’s less concerned about door-to-door ballot harvesting. “If you’re giving your ballot to somebody you don’t know, and your ballot doesn’t get cast, there’s nobody to blame but yourself,” Mr. Harvey said.

Mr. Harvey, a Republican who served on the state legislative committee in charge of the elections bill, said he’s also worried about the potential for mischief from the large number of previously inactive voters now in the system.

“I’m walking precincts every day, and I’m going to people’s houses where they’re getting seven ballots to a household,” Mr. Harvey said. “The reason is that their children when they were 18 registered to vote there. They’re now 30 years old and living somewhere else, but now that their inactive voting status is now active, the clerk and recorders are required to send them ballots.”

As a result, “All of these ballots are ending up at Mom and Dad’s house. If Mom and Dad wanted to, they could vote them,” he said.

Supporters of the all-mail system argue that Colorado has never had significant problems with voter fraud, and that the concerns are coming primarily from Republicans, who tend to do better in elections with lower voter turnout.

Still, given the stakes in Colorado’s Senate and gubernatorial races, advocacy groups have pledged to spend millions on get-out-the-vote efforts. Already neighborhoods are being flooded with campaign workers.

The race between Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and his Republican challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, is viewed as one of a handful that could swing the balance of power in the Senate.

“I guarantee you right now if you went to an apartment complex anywhere in Colorado, you would find ballots in the trash can,” Mr. Harvey said. “If you went to the Highlands Ranch post office right now, where they have P.O. boxes, you would find a ton of ballots in the trash can. You and I could go there, and we could pick up those ballots, and we could vote. That concerns me greatly.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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