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Republicans Should Not Bet On Ballot Harvesting

counting ballots
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Republicans are at a fatal disadvantage in the ballot-harvesting game, and it is important to understand why.


We understand the impulse among some Republicans to throw up their hands in frustration when it comes to ballot harvesting. They advocate rapidly deploying their own ballot-harvesting operations in advance of the 2024 election.  

Some have likened it to a nuclear arms race. Mollie and Mark Hemingway have recently argued that “…our only hope of getting electoral arms control is if both sides have nukes.” 

But the nuclear weapons analogy is deeply flawed. Nuclear weapons are arguably a legitimate means of waging war, whereas universal mail-in ballots should never be legitimized as a way of deciding elections due to the high potential for various types of election fraud and uncontrollable electioneering and corruption of voters.

A better analogy would be biological weapons, which are generally acknowledged to be an illegitimate means of waging war. If your enemies develop biological weapons, the best strategy is not to match them in the hope of persuading them to eliminate their biological weapons. It is to do whatever is necessary to disrupt their biological weapons capabilities. 

Covid-19 Radically Altered America’s Elections 

Given the current political and legal landscape, it is hard to imagine “emergency” election measures taken in response to Covid-19 in 2020 ever being rolled back, as they have suddenly brought into reality an objective that Democrats have been working toward for decades. 

That objective is an electoral world in which polls, historical trends, economic issues, messaging, voter enthusiasm, candidate quality, traditional get-out-the-vote efforts, candidate debates, and voter persuasion no longer matter in elections

All that ultimately matters in ballot-harvesting states is the number of mail-in ballots that can be distributed, harvested, and counted in local election offices by partisan election activists over the weeks and months preceding Election Day. 

The “ballots out, ballots in” harvesting machine now dominates the electoral margin in many states. The new machine far exceeds the “margin of voter fraud” that most Republican election strategists knew they had to overcome in previous elections in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. 

But Republicans are at a fatal disadvantage in the ballot-harvesting game, and it is important to understand why. This uncomfortable reality is not likely to change for the foreseeable future. 

Democrats’ Election-Industrial Complex 

Our research shows Democrats’ ballot-harvesting operations played a key role in President Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 through the Center for Tech and Civic Life’s $332 million Covid-19 Response Grant Program. The operations appear to some analysts to have been largely responsible for Republicans’ disappointing showing in the 2022 midterms

Opposing our anti-harvesting view, intelligent conservatives like Ned Ryun have stated, “In all their objections [to ballot harvesting], none have described just how not engaging in harvesting will lead to victory. Not. One.”   

But recent Republican converts to ballot harvesting have yet to put forward a realistic plan of how a Republican ballot-harvesting operation would actually work, beyond the vaguely ridiculous idea of canvassing for ballots at rest homes, gun shows, and churches or of mounting untargeted door-knocking campaigns in unspecified areas by conservative election activists who do not actually exist. 

Democrats currently execute a ballot-harvesting game vastly more complex, sophisticated, expensive, and labor-intensive than most Republicans even remotely understand.   

Advancing Democrat Interests

In our recent work, we describe the sprawling, lavishly funded network of 501(c)(3) organizations and charitable foundations that are dedicated to changing election laws and norms in ways that favor Democratic candidates. 

The Democrats’ powerful election-industrial complex consists of two types of institutions: national types devoted to election strategy and policy, and local types, including public-sector unions, devoted to fielding and deploying boots-on-the-ground election activists.   

Public-sector unions comprise a vast potential workforce to aid in solidifying the grip of Democrats on the election process in their states through the sheer manpower they can deploy for vote canvassing, voter registration, assistance in early voting, and ballot harvesting. 

Local urban-based activist organizations also contribute to the left’s army of community organizers. It is where the armies of Democrat vote canvassers and ballot harvesters come from in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, et al. 

There is no similar constellation of institutions in the Republican world that provide organizational or personnel support for boots-on-the-ground Republican get-out-the-vote efforts, nor is there likely to be for the foreseeable future. 

Finding Republican Ballot Harvesters 

The construction of the giant network of think tanks, foundations, and charities on the left that support community organizers and election activists began in the 1960s. Even if Republicans somehow managed to gain the financial resources to fund their own ballot-harvesting operations, it would take many years to recruit sufficient numbers of conservatives and develop the leadership to effectively mount a counter to the Democrats’ election activism ground game. The armies of election activists and community organizers that swarm urban areas year-round are almost entirely young leftists.   

Political activism in general belongs to the left, and Republicans have devoted little effort over the last five decades toward understanding the left’s highly effective strategies of organizing for collective action. 

Plenty of conservative college graduates will go work in Washington, D.C., as congressional staff for politicians who promise to reduce the scope of government, but the concept of community organization is owned by the left.

Moreover, Democratic ballot harvesters are guided by sophisticated statistical models and data mining schemes devised by an army of highly skilled, Ph.D.-level data analysts. Republicans have generally disdained this technical aspect of political science and instead published think-tank papers on political philosophy or public policy, leaving the ranks of high-level Republican data analysts generally empty. 

Finally, left-wing election activists have amassed a vast amount of social capital in the election world over the years. Older organizations have the benefit of professional staff with decades of experience, which facilitate smooth operations and allow personnel and board members to develop working relationships, especially within the government agencies that oversee elections. These longstanding relationships do not develop overnight.   

Resistance to Democrats’ Machine 

The best arguments for going all in on ballot harvesting among Republicans are ultimately cynical and nihilistic. An election system based on universal mail-in voting and ballot harvesting amounts to replacing actual voting with glorified petition drives that operate through the initiative of election activists, rather than through the initiative of voters themselves.   

In a constitutional republic such as ours, the main form of electoral agency should come from actual voters rather than partisan political functionaries and local “voter ambassadors.” Universal mail-in voting radically shifts the balance of power in elections away from voters and toward politicians, civil servants, and partisan activists, who can increasingly determine their own fates independent of actual voter preferences.  

Cheating, disenfranchising legitimate voters, empowering corrupt politicians and partisan activists, and making our elections less secure is not a prudent, rational, or legitimate path forward.   

Opposing universal mail-in voting and disrupting Democrats’ ballot harvesting in state legislatures and the courts is not the stance of “principled losers” but rather the game that uncompromising Republicans must play to win.

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