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Rivko Knox, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters in Phoenix, and other voters sued Arizona over a law that bans the third-party collection of early mail-in ballots. The issue is now before the Supreme Court. AP Photo/Anita Snow

Is ballot collection, or ‘ballot harvesting,’ good for democracy? We asked 5 experts

A 2016 Arizona state law makes the collection of ballots by third parties a felony.

The Democratic National Committee and voters sued the state over the law the same year it passed, claiming the ban violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against the state’s Native American, Hispanic and African American citizens who rely more on third-party collection. They also argued it violates the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that race not be a barrier to voting.

At the time of the bill’s passing, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said it would help maintain election integrity.

The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments March 2.

The high court’s decision could affect laws in states that allow ballot collection and may also set a standard for evaluating local elections laws nationwide.

We asked five election experts if collection of ballots is good for democracy.

Colorado gets it right

Richard L. Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science, University of California, Irvine

Within reasonable limits. “Ballot harvesting” is a pejorative term for the third-party collection of mail-in ballots. Some states, such as Alabama, ban the practice of allowing people to collect and turn in another’s ballot, and some of the states allowing collection impose limits on the practice.

Allowing collection in certain circumstances makes sense, such as for voters in remote locations, or elderly or disabled voters who might have trouble returning their own ballots. But events from Bladen County, North Carolina, in 2018 show that such collection may provide the pathway for unscrupulous people to destroy or alter ballots.

States should allow assistance returning ballots to those voters needing it, but they should require that collectors identify themselves and be limited, as in Colorado, in the number of ballots they may collect.

Access to the ballot box

Nancy Martorano Miller, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Dayton

Yes. I don’t like the term “ballot harvesting” because it implies fraud or illegality. I prefer “ballot collection.”

Some form of ballot collection is legal in 26 states. Officials in charge of running elections have consistently maintained the integrity of elections in those states. Fraud by ballot collection, like all incidences of election fraud, is rare.

Having a ballot collected might be the difference between a person voting and not voting. As a political scientist, I think we should encourage voting by all eligible citizens and count as many votes as possible.

Research shows that who votes has an impact on the types of public policies adopted by their representatives. With proper oversight, ballot collection can help underrepresented groups cast ballots and have their voices heard.

Disenfranchisement a worry

Frank J. Gonzalez, Assistant Professor in Political Science, University of Arizona

Yes. Throughout American history, regulations about who can vote and how have served as a major vehicle through which Black, brown, and poor Americans have been excluded from voting, thus diminishing any ability to refer to the U.S. as “democratic.”

The 15th Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote in 1869. Soon after, “Jim Crow” laws, although often race-neutral in their language, became de facto barriers to African Americans voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made such laws illegal. But even after that, restrictive voting laws such as voter ID laws, availability of polling locations and hours and restrictions on early voting have become primary tools for disenfranchising people of color as overt forms of racism have become less socially acceptable and discrimination has become more subtle.

Voter fraud can certainly be a threat to democracy, but most mail-in ballot laws make that incredibly unlikely. Disenfranchisement – due to laws about voting eligibility, voting requirements, racial/class disparities in resources or mobilization efforts, or other technicalities regarding ballot procedures – is an exponentially larger and more evident threat.

Ballot “harvesting” has the potential to reduce turnout disparities. Ultimately, if validation procedures like those that already exist in many states are put in place, it is hard to see an argument against ballot collection that is not based on some undemocratic motivation.

More participation is key

Domingo Morel, Assistant Professor, Political Science, Rutgers University – Newark

Yes. Democracy requires the participation of its citizenry.

However, in the U.S., only about 60% of eligible voters participate in presidential elections and even fewer participate in midterm and municipal elections. Research has shown that when we reduce the barriers to participation and include more ways for people to cast their ballots, participation increases. Research has also shown that community organizations are vital in encouraging voting participation, particularly among the most marginalized populations.

Vote collection through trusted third parties, like community organizations, can increase the likelihood that more people will participate in the democratic process. Although some critics have expressed concerns about vote collection and widespread voter fraud, there’s no evidence that this is indeed the case. The more pressing concern is lack of participation and voter suppression, which vote collection can help address.

Checks are robust

Thessalia Merivaki, Assistant Professor in American Politics, Mississippi State University

Yes. A voting practice is good for democracy when it facilitates access to voting and protects the integrity of elections. The infrastructure of mail voting, for example, across the states includes several robust checks, such as signature verification and ballot tracking, to verify a voter’s identity and detect efforts to commit fraud.

Access to a car or the post office is not a given for many voters, which makes ballot collection their only way to vote.

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