President Trump and fellow Washington Republicans have spent two years railing against ballot harvesting, but outside the Beltway, Republicans are coming to a different conclusion: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
After being pummeled in California in the 2018 congressional elections, thanks in large part to ballot harvesting, Republicans embraced the tactic this year. It is legal in the state to put out drop boxes and collect ballots at churches and in prosperous retirement communities rife with Republican-leaning voters.
Ballot harvesting appears to have helped Republicans Michelle Steel and Young Kim capture seats in the 48th and 39th congressional districts. Another race remains outstanding.
Shawn Steel, Mrs. Steel’s husband and one of California’s Republican National Committee members, said most Republican activists prefer ballots to be cast on Election Day, but “those days are over, they are gone.”
“We have to adapt or die. That is my rule,” Mr. Steel said. “So now we have a new environment and we just have to gin it up and play by the rules.”
In ballot harvesting, third parties collect ballots completed by voters and deliver them to election officials. Many state laws restrict harvesting by allowing only a relative or caregiver to assist.
Arizona and North Carolina make it a felony for anyone other than the voter to take possession of a ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Indeed, one of North Carolina’s congressional races in 2018 had to be repeated because of harvesting allegations and criminal charges.
But a 2016 change in California law explicitly allows ballot harvesting unless the harvesters are paid commissions based on the numbers they generate.
Republicans traditionally have frowned on the practice. They warned of political operatives scouring retirement homes for ballots that were mailed to voters but not cast.
A harvester could dump ballots marked against their candidate, deliver ballots supporting their candidate and fill in any blank ballots in favor of their side.
After their 2018 California drubbing, Republicans in Washington suggested a national ban on the practice.
Democrats countered that harvesting helps those who can’t make it to polling places and expands voting opportunities.
“It hasn’t necessarily made sense to me why it falls along partisan divisions in terms of its utility,” said Derek T. Muller, a law professor at the University of Iowa. “It can benefit Republicans as much as Democrats if you want to ensure your side’s voters get their ballots in to be counted.”
Mr. Muller is skeptical of unlimited harvesting because it increases the risk of fraud.
With the 2020 election’s dramatic expansion of mail-in voting, the issue of custody of ballots is getting new attention.
Mr. Trump and his lieutenants complain of rampant fraud and have raised questions about the voting process, though evidence of widespread fraud has not been forthcoming.
“Democrat ballot harvesting is a massive concern in Georgia,” Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said last week.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and top Trump ally, said he has caught wind of underhanded ballot harvesting stories in Pennsylvania nursing homes.
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee, released a report this year looking at California’s system and concluding that the potential for fraud “jeopardizes the integrity of the entire electoral process and we must all work together to ensure steps are taken to address this threat.”
Instead, Republicans in California pioneered new tactics, including setting up collection boxes.
Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, and Xavier Becerra, the attorney general, issued a cease-and-desist letter warning that the boxes went beyond what the law allowed.
Mr. Steel, the RNC member, said Republicans called their bluff and insisted the boxes were within the limits of state law.
John Fredericks, the Virginia chair for Mr. Trump’s campaign, told The Washington Times that Republicans elsewhere should get in the game.
“You know what the Republicans’ biggest mistake was: We didn’t have a harvesting operation,” he said. “If they can harvest, we should be able to harvest.”
Republicans may have some limits to tapping the tool, though.
Bruce Ash, an RNC member from Arizona, said Republicans invested a large amount of money into an aggressive ballot harvesting operation before his state banned the practice in 2016, though it didn’t get much traction.
“Republican voters said, ‘Go to hell. I am not going to give you my ballot,’” Mr. Ash said. “That could be because we are just cranky cowboys in Arizona, but Republicans, I think, have a different feeling about the voting franchise than others do.”
Adding to the drama, a federal appeals court ruled this year that Arizona’s law was discriminatory. Arizona has appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to take that case this term.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.