Following a bloodbath for Republicans in the 2018 midterms, then-House speaker Paul Ryan couldn’t believe what he had seen out in California.
“We were only down 26 seats the night of the election and three weeks later, we lost basically every California race,’’ Ryan — a mentor to California Republican and current House GOP head Kevin McCarthy — told the Washington Post in a post-mortem interview. “This election system they have — I can’t begin to understand what ‘ballot harvesting’ is.”
Ryan’s disbelief was prompted by a “blue tsunami” of mail-in ballots that tipped early-GOP leads and cost California Republicans seven seats when the dust had settled. The discontent stemmed from two 2016 laws that California’s Democratic-led legislature passed: one that allowed counties to mail every voter an absentee ballot, and another that waived a family-only requirement for third-person ballot return, allowing anyone to collect them.
Former state Republican chair Shawn Steel echoed Ryan’s sentiments in an op-ed at the time. “How does a 14-point Republican lead disappear? Merciless and unsparing, California Democrats have systematically undermined California’s already weak voter protection laws to guarantee permanent one-party rule,’’ he wrote, referencing Young Kim’s loss to Democrat Gil Cisneros in Orange County’s open seat for the 39th District.
But in 2020, California Republicans are singing a different tune, even as California governor Gavin Newsom signed a Democrat bill requiring that every registered voter in the state receive a mail-in ballot for the November elections.
Of the seven seats that Republicans lost two years ago, two in Orange County have flipped back to red — Steel’s wife, Michelle Park Steel, won in California’s 48th, while Kim defeated Cisneros in a second try — and Republicans lead by narrow margins in two more.
So what changed?
“I think one of the big areas is ballot harvesting,” California GOP spokesman Hector Barajas told National Review, crediting the pragmatic leadership of state chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson to emphasize the practice in several key races.
“We were either going to do two different things,” Barajas said of the state party’s shift in attitude. “We were either going to continue to whine, oppose valid harvesting, and lick our wounds after the election, or we were going to figure out the rules, look at the chessboard that was put before us, and figure out how to play the game.”
Orange County GOP chair Fred Whitaker explained that in 2018, Republicans in the state had tried to utilize the law in their “own ballot harvesting experiment,” but it “failed miserably.”
“We wasted $25,000 of donor of money on one pilot project to get 12 ballots,” he said in a phone interview.
But this time around, Orange County Republicans upped the ante, placing collection boxes in megachurches such as Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills and Influence Church in Anaheim, as well as targeting Vietnamese voters in Westminster and Fountain Valley.
And while California Republicans say that would rather do away with the practice all together — a position shared by California election-law expert Dr. Rick Hasen — they see it as a necessary evil, especially when locked in a high-turnout battle during COVID-19.
“The issue of ballot harvesting is we don’t like it. We don’t agree with it. However, it’d be political malpractice not to do it where the other side is doing it, and the other side has done it effectively,” California RNC committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon told National Review.
“This isn’t the debating club. This is about winning the election,” she continued.
Republicans pointed to how the law enabled the Democrat ballot harvesting machine to work in 2018, with tens of thousands in funding for operatives to hit the streets and collect ballots door-to-door and from favorable union halls.
“Some of those narrow margins they won by 2018 were simply from this staff-intensive massive ballot harvesting,” Whitaker claimed, adding that Democrat big-money fixations on Midwestern swing states helped mitigate the impact this time around.
Officials said that the GOP’s ballot-harvesting strategy of placing drop boxes in local churches, gun stores, and other friendly locations emphasized security, with one person assigned to each box to collect votes and hand them over to officials at least three times a week, in accordance with the state’s 72-hour window.
It’s unclear to what extent the strategy proved decisive, and Republicans stressed that ballot harvesting was just one facet in a myriad of strategies, including an app that delivered campaign data to phone volunteers and generated 8 million voter calls since June, as well as a monopolized ground game that Democrats ceded over pandemic fears.
But with such tight margins, every vote counts: Steel and Kim won their races by a combined margin of barely 12,000 votes, while David Valadao and Mike Garcia currently lead in the 21st and 25th districts by 1,618 and 400 votes, respectively.
Ironically, considering President Trump’s repeated and ongoing claims that mass mail-in ballots would lead to a “rigged election” — his May 26 tweet about California’s vote-by-mail law led to Twitter tagging him for the first time — it was California’s Democrats who raised suspicions when Republicans began publicizing their ballot-harvesting strategy.
In October, California secretary of state Alex Padilla and California attorney general Xavier Becerra sent a cease-and-desist order to the California GOP and warned them of possible voter fraud, after pictures showed Republican ballot collection boxes labeled “official.”
“Misleading voters is wrong regardless of who is doing it,” Padilla told reporters, emphasizing that the boxes “are not permitted by state law.”
Becerra said those responsible for the “fake” boxes and anyone “engaging in this activity” could be subject to criminal prosecution, because it is “illegal to tamper with a citizen’s vote.”
But Republicans didn’t back down, arguing that they were on solid footing under the law, and eventually won in court. Barajas stated that while Republican voters would usually be wary of ballot harvesting, the Democrats’ antics actually helped convince Republican voters to embrace the process.
“I’m going to give credit to the secretary of state and attorney general for taking us to court and doing what they did. Because they took an issue that was very unpopular with Republicans and made a spectacle out of it,” he said. “This circus that they did with all their press conferences, and as Republicans are reading the newspaper or watching the news, they’re saying, ‘well, why shouldn’t we play by the same rules?’ So they took an issue that Republicans didn’t like, didn’t want to engage in, and made it actually acceptable.”
Barajas said that after the Democrats’ fuss drew national media attention, Republicans saw an uptick in voters taking advantage of the ballot harvesting process. “We had a bunch of calls come in saying ‘hey, I don’t necessarily trust the Post Office to deliver on time, where can I go and turn in my ballot? Is there a Republican headquarters near me?’” he revealed. “During the height of the two weeks of back and forth . . . in some places we were getting hundreds. I know a couple places where we got a couple thousand ballots returned.”
And what about the fraud? Barajas said that he didn’t know of any cases where ballots that had been harvested by Republicans had to be thrown out. “If we had, the secretary of state and attorney general would have been the first ones to hold a press conference,” he said.