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‘We got our clocks cleaned’: GOP quietly works to expand ballot harvesting in California while criticizing Democrats for the practice

Then-Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) talks to supporters at her campaign office on Nov. 6. Walters’s campaign ran a program in which it urged voters to entrust their mail-in ballots to staff with “ballot security” badges, permissible under state law. (Chris Carlson/AP)

Ever since their drubbing in California’s congressional races in the fall, national Republicans have raised questions about a new state law that allows campaigns to collect mail ballots directly from voters, suggesting such “harvesting” could lead to fraud.

In recent weeks, GOP leaders have intensified that criticism, attempting to equate the Democrat-backed law in California with an illegal ballot-fraud operation that boosted a Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina in the fall.

But the behind the scenes, GOP leaders and on-the-ground operatives are privately strategizing ways to improve their own ballot-harvesting operations in California, where the party now holds seven out of 53 congressional seats, according to people familiar with the efforts.

Republicans tested the tactic in a few races last year, encouraging voters in one Orange County district to entrust their ballots to campaign workers carrying ID badges marked “ballot security” to convey legitimacy, according to those involved.

During a private conference call in February 2019, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman discussed ballot harvesting with GOP donors. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

“We got our clocks cleaned,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told GOP donors in a private conference call last month, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post.

“While the Democrats had an operation on the ground that was actually doing the ballot harvesting, we did not have a corresponding organization that was doing that,” Emmer said. He added: “That won’t happen again.”

Republican attempts to match Democratic ballot-collection programs come as the party tries to both recover from its midterm losses and distance itself from the illegal GOP ballot-harvesting scheme in North Carolina that last month led state officials to call for a new election.

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National GOP leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have sought to deflect attention from the embarrassing episode by equating what is permitted in California with the alleged ballot tampering in North Carolina, which investigators say included filling out, forging and discarding voters’ ballots — activity that is illegal in all states.

McCarthy and other Republicans have noted that the Democratic voting-reform legislation the House approved on Friday does not ban gathering absentee ballots directly from voters, which is allowed in 19 states.

“Can you imagine putting the trust of your vote in the hands of a stranger?” McCarthy said last week in a speech on the House floor. “If that doesn’t scare you, it should. Sadly, this practice was weaponized in California and North Carolina not so long ago.”

McCarthy’s public denunciation of ballot-collection efforts contrasts sharply with what Republicans have been saying behind the scenes.

“We just can’t allow California to slip off, over the fault line,” Emmer said on the donor call, adding that McCarthy “is laser-focused” on becoming more competitive with ballot collection in 2020.

Republican Party officials said that they remain concerned about potential fraud in California, even as they seek to improve their own abilities to collect ballots directly from voters.

“Two can play at this game,” NRCC communications director Chris Pack said, “and the difference between us and California Democrats is that we will play responsibly and ethically.”

Matthew Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy’s political committee, said that “the greater inconsistency is on the Democrat side.”

“They were incensed about what happened in North Carolina but weaponized the same tactics in California,” Sparks added. “What’s worse is that, when given the opportunity to do something about it, Democrats balked.”

There are no known allegations of fraud connected to the new California law, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D). It does not permit what allegedly occurred in North Carolina, where GOP operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, who has been charged with seven felonies, has been accused of not just collecting ballots, but also forging some and discarding others.

The controversy has been awkward for the GOP, which under President Trump has warned loudly about the risks of in-person voter fraud, a relatively rare phenomenon. Trump has been silent about the North Carolina case, even as other Republicans have tried to turn attention to the potential for fraud in California.

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Ballot harvesting, also known as ballot collection, refers to the practice of third-party collection of mail-in ballots. In states where it is legal, campaigns use the tactic to drive up turnout among their own supporters who might not otherwise have the time or desire to cast their ballot.

In North Carolina, only a close relative or guardian may help a voter mail or drop off his or her mail-in ballot.

In California, then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill in 2016 that allows anyone to collect ballots on behalf of campaigns and turn them in either through the mail, in voter drop boxes or in person at polling places. The bill passed the state legislature on a strict party-line vote.

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents southern San Diego, said she wrote the legislation as part of a larger goal of removing “every little barrier we have to voting.”

She said she came up with the idea after walking “a ton” of precincts on behalf of organized labor and noticing how often she would knock on someone’s door, learn that the voter had filled out their ballot but then be told, “I’m about to leave for work. I can’t turn it in.”

“And it was unlawful for me to deliver it,” she added.

Under the new law, anyone collecting ballots must turn them in within three days of collection. Collectors are instructed to sign the envelopes in which ballots are sealed. And campaigns and advocacy groups are prohibited from paying field workers on a per-ballot basis to reduce the incentive for workers to fill out blank ballots or improperly pressure voters to turn over their ballots.

Voters can also check the status of their votes online, so that if a ballot is not turned in, a voter can fill out a provisional ballot to ensure their vote is counted even if the mail-in ballot never shows up.

Still, former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) questioned the ballot collection rules in California in an interview with The Post in November, saying the state’s law “seems pretty loosey-goose.” And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called on Democrats to support a national ban on ballot collection. “I’ve yet to see any evidence they are actually interested in cleaning up the conditions that lead to messes like this one in North Carolina,” McConnell said on the Senate floor last month.

Tom Fitton, the head of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said the practice of direct ballot collection is a “recipe for fraud.”

Padilla, California’s secretary of state, said Republicans expressed little concern about ballot harvesting amid the building controversy in North Carolina during the past several months, speaking out only after that congressional election was deemed tainted.

The GOP’s attacks on the California ballot-collection law are attempts “to delegitimize the results of these elections as opposed to taking ownership for having bad policies and bad candidates,” Padilla said.

Even as national leaders have publicly criticized the practice, Republican lawmakers in California said the party needs to get better at ballot harvesting to be competitive.

“Obviously, our congressional candidates are going to need to engage in this,” said GOP Rep. Ken Calvert, who represents part of Riverside County. “I would prefer that it was not legal. But it is at the present time. And so we’ll all have to participate in this activity.”

Democratic candidates have a huge field advantage over Republicans in California, in part because of the organizing power of the state’s largest unions. That power also translates into trusted relationships with union households, where, leaders from both parties agree, Democratic voters are more likely to turn over a ballot than in a Republican home.

“Republicans, culturally, tend not to like to turn over their ballot to a stranger,” Calvert said. “That’s just a fact of life — they’re not going to do that. So we have to understand this better, and probably we’ll have to do it differently than what the Democrats did.”

The GOP tried ballot collection last year in some races — including that of former congresswoman Mimi Walters, who lost her Orange County seat to Democrat Katie Porter.

Walters said she believes ballot harvesting is ripe for fraud and undermines election integrity, adding that she hopes it gets challenged in court.

Nevertheless, her campaign ran its own program to pick up mail-in ballots from voters.

“We didn’t have a choice!” Walters said. “We were trying anything we could to make people aware of the new law and to let them know we were there and able to pick up their ballots.”

Her campaign sent pieces of mail to voters in her district with a code number and instructions urging them to enter it into a website called California Ballot Security, which in turn prompted a campaign worker to visit their homes to collect the ballots.

Campaign workers presented ID badges labeled “ballot security,” she said, to assure voters they could be trusted. But many were still wary, she said.

“The Republicans that leaned our way didn’t trust that their ballots were actually going to get to the registrar,” she said.

Door-knockers canvassing and collecting ballots for Porter, her Democratic challenger, were more successful. Ahead by about 6,000 votes on election night, Walters said, she was shocked to learn that there were boxes of ballots still being turned in.

In the end, she lost by more than 12,000 votes.

Walters said that while changing demographics and millions of dollars in Democratic spending contributed to her loss, she also believes that ballot collection played a role.

On the NRCC donor call, the committee’s political director, Justin Richards, promised to change that dynamic in 2020. “Being prepared for harvesting,” he said, is a top priority. “Before Election Day,” he added, “we’re going to have the vote apparatus in place.”

Alice Crites and Dave Weigel contributed to this report.