- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 9, 2021

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A proposed law making it a felony in Idaho for a third party to collect and return multiple ballots to election officials headed to the full House on Tuesday.

The House State Affairs Committee approved the measure involving “ballot harvesting” that has become a partisan flashpoint across the nation.

More than half of states allow a third party to collect ballots, and political groups and campaigns from both parties have run ballot-collection programs aimed at boosting turnout and ensuring voters who are older, homebound, disabled, or live far from U.S. postal services can get their ballot returned.

But questions about the practice intensified leading up to and following the general election in November when many more absentee ballots were cast due to the coronavirus pandemic, including in Idaho. Former President Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud involving absentee ballots that were rejected by courts.

However, backers say the potential exists in Idaho and point to North Carolina in 2018, where ballot harvesting resulted in a congressional election being overturned.

The proposed law limits who can handle more than two ballots at a time to election officials, U.S. postal service workers and parcel delivery services. A family member would be allowed to deliver no more than two ballots.

“While it may not be a problem in Idaho today, I think we need to fix it before it does become a problem,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Moyle, the majority leader in the House. “We need to make sure it doesn’t happen here.”

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane supported the legislation, though he said a version of the legislation he preferred allowed a family member to deliver up to six ballots. And instead of a felony, violators would only face a misdemeanor.

“I want to make sure every vote counts and make sure everyone has faith in the process in terms of how those ballots are being handled,” he said. “I think this legislation is a step in that direction.”

In response to lawmaker questions about concerns voters had that someone might identify their party affiliation and toss their absentee ballot, McGrane said there is no mark on an absentee ballot denoting voter affiliation. However, he agreed with Republican Rep. Brent Crane that someone could look at the name and return address on an absentee ballot and find out their voter affiliation through public records.

“I believe with minimal sophistication somebody who had bad intentions could do so,” McGrane said.

McGrane noted that the vast majority of absentee ballots go through the U.S. postal service, and not by ballot collection organizers.

In North Carolina, a state probe there found that a Republican political operative illegally gathered ballots and workers testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures and fill in votes. Officials overturned the election.

The Idaho secretary of state’s office also supported the proposed measure.

“We think ballot harvesting is a bad practice that provides the greatest opportunity to violate the sanctity of the ballot to the people with the greatest motivation to do so,” said Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock.

Democratic Rep. Chris Mathias asked the committee to send the bill to be amended in the House and raise from two to six the number of ballots a family member could deliver. He cited the difficulty rural residents might face in having to make multiple trips to drop off family members’ ballots.

“If you don’t live in a metropolitan area, that’s not the most efficient use of anyone’s time,” he said.

But the committee rejected that motion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho opposed the legislation.

The bill “would extend felony criminal liability to those engaging in voter assistance,” the group said in written testimony. “Idahoans who are elderly or differently-abled may rely on assistance to exercise their right to vote. Accordingly, this legislation may inadvertently disenfranchise those voters.”

The proposed law arrives as lawmakers are also considering another bill to make permanent changes to the counting of absentee ballots used in the last general election and spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. That law would allow, as it did last year, county clerks to open and scan, but not tally, ballots beginning seven days before Election Day. The law used last year expired in December.

Idaho officials encouraged absentee and early voting last November, and about 500,000 of Idaho’s 1 million registered voters used those two options. In all, a record-breaking 880,000 ballots were cast.

McGrane has said he doesn’t expect that kind of early and absentee voting once the pandemic abates, but more people will likely continue the practice having used it during the pandemic.

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