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Collecting or harvesting? Ballot practice not a factor in 2022 elections

Updated November 6, 2022 - 12:25 pm

In 2020 Lynn Manning John, a member of the Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute Tribe, in Owyhee, collected around five ballots from residents in the reservation and drove about 90 miles both ways to Elko to put them in an official drop box.

The tribe’s reservation, which has about 2,000 residents, sits on the border of Idaho and Nevada, and on the Nevada side, the nearest polling location was 100 miles away. The post office at the reservation closed at 3:30 p.m.

“Voting is a barrier on Election Day. … Unless your ballot is in the post office and can be marked by 3:30 p.m., your ballot doesn’t count for mail-in voting,” Manning John said.

Ballot collecting, the practice of third parties returning completed ballots on behalf of voters and is also known as ballot harvesting, was made legal during the COVID-19 pandemic; the Legislature made it permanent in 2021. The idea was to make things easier for people, especially in rural areas, where ballot drop-off sites could be more than an hour away, said Dan Lee, an associate professor of political science at UNLV.

The ballot collecting provisions drew concerns from Republicans who feared third parties would tamper with ballots or coerce voters to vote for a particular candidate, but with the midterms just two days away, few people or organizations — if any — seem to be utilizing the practice this year.

‘Acting in good faith’

Manning John is not collecting ballots for residents this year after her tribe won a lawsuit against Elko County to get same-day in-person voting and one day of in-person early voting, she said.

When Manning John did collect those ballots in the 2020 presidential election, she caught former President Donald Trump’s attention on Twitter, retweeting a photo she took of herself being handed her friend’s ballot. Trump had cited ballot collections as one of the reasons he claimed the election was stolen from him in 2020.

“I think people believe that those carrying the ballots for others tried to influence their votes,” Manning John said. “They think that they have somehow schemed. (There are) lots of conspiracies about it. But I have to believe that people act in good faith. I know I acted in good faith.”

Manning John was careful and transparent when she took the ballots to the Elko County registrar of voters. Working with an organization called the Nevada Native Vote Project, she encouraged people to register to vote and to vote. She dispersed information about voting and registration, and through the project, she gave about 10 gas cards to families to use to drive and submit their ballots.

She updated them when she left to go to Elko, when she arrived and when she dropped off the ballots, taking photos along the way. The Elko County registrar verified the signatures and gave her some “I voted” stickers to give to the community members.

“I never asked who they voted for, what was inside the ballot. I just made sure the people whose ballots I was taking to Elko [were ensured] that their ballot was delivered,” she said.

Division on ballot collecting

In general, political parties are divided on the issue of ballot collecting, Lee said. Democrats tend to favor expanding the vote, making it easier and getting more people to vote. Particularly during the pandemic, they tried to reduce barriers to casting a vote.

Republicans have been against it, framing it in a more negative light with the term “ballot harvesting,” Lee said. They envision some organization or person tampering with the ballots or changing votes, when in reality it has been used by people living in rural areas who would otherwise have to travel far distances to submit their ballots.

“Where there’s more questions that are being raised are what if there’s some other random, third party person collecting it, and that opens the possibility of voter fraud where they can tamper with the ballot,” Lee said.

That is why Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske wanted ballot collectors to register with the secretary of state’s office so there is some sort of idea of who the collectors are, Lee said. But Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak rejected her suggestion.

Cegavske wrote a statement of emergency ahead of the 2020 election asking that individuals who return ballots on behalf of other voters be required to file a notice with the secretary of state with information about any corporate, political or advocacy entity the person may be associated with. “This clarification is needed to ensure the Secretary of State has the information necessary to investigate and stop illegal activity associated with ballot harvesting,” Cegavske wrote.

Not utilized in 2022

But there are very few reports of organizations or people collecting ballots in this election. The Review-Journal reached out to both Washoe and Clark counties, whichsaid that while there is not a way to track ballot collections, they have not heard of many people collecting ballots. The Review-Journal also reached out to tribal coalitions, political organizations, unions and churches but did not find anyone offering to bring people’s ballots to the polls.

In 2021 the Nevada Legislature passed Assembly Bill 321. It changed the process for tribes to request a polling location and a ballot drop box to improve access to elections, so some tribes no longer need to collect people’s ballots. Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said that with options giving greater access to voting, the need for sending a completed ballot with a relative or neighbor is not as great as it was in 2020. Last election, she said, leaders in the Yomba Shoshone Nation got creative in helping people vote by collecting completed ballots via horseback and then delivering them to the county seat in Austin.

Cathi Tuni, the chairwoman of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, said that this year they have a polling place set up on the reservation and had multiple early voting events.

“This is the first time ever we’ve had so many people vote in the general elections,” Tuni said in an email.

Jennifer Russell, public information officer for the Nevada secretary of state’s office, said the office has not heard of anyone collecting ballots for others, and it has not received any complaints about it, although people have brought up concerns with ballot harvesting in general.

Washoe County has not received complaints about ballot collecting, but it has heard of people posting on social media that they will help gather ballots and drop them off for anyone who cannot make it to the polls themselves, Media and Communications Manager Bethany Drysdale said.

“We advise against this. Don’t give your ballot to anyone you don’t know and trust,” Drysdale said in an email.

The Reno Gazette Journal reported Oct. 14 that a flyer was left on the door of a Reno doorstep offering to take their ballot to the poll for them, and it appeared to favor a Republican Washoe County Commissioner Jeanne Herman, who is running against Democrat Edwin Lyngar. The Review-Journal reached out to the email on the flyer but did not hear back.

“Legislators have made a decision that there’s no limit to the number of ballots that somebody can bring in,” Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria said. “If the voter has entrusted that to an individual to turn in for them because they can’t do it, any number of ballots can be brought in and turned into one of our secure drop boxes.”

“Anybody can take advantage of putting that into the mail. And we don’t warn anybody against doing that. We’re perfectly comfortable with the safety of the ballots,” Gloria said.

When someone brings in the ballots, somebody staffs the drop box and makes sure the ballots are signed so they can be processed, he said.

Since Manning John does not need to collect ballots anymore, she will instead focus on encouraging people to vote this year, getting people registered and making sure they know that tribal members and employees worked hard to get same-day voting on the reservation.

“They can register the same day, vote the same day, and they don’t have to go any farther than our community building,” Manning John said.

Contact Jessica Hill at jehill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on Twitter.

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