Anyone who harbors the quaint notion that high-stakes politics are rational, much less ethical, should be disabused by two terms: “gerrymandering” and “ballot harvesting.”
When Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and maintained it for three subsequent election cycles, Democrats complained loudly that it was the result of gerrymandering – drawing districts in a way to favor one party – by GOP-controlled state legislatures.
The complaint was accurate. There had been a concerted effort by Republicans and allied groups to gain state legislative seats in hopes of influencing the redrawing of congressional districts, and it succeeded.
Democratic leaders have become big fans of independent redistricting commissions such as the one created in California.
However, it should be noted that California’s Democratic leaders bitterly opposed the ballot measures that created and then expanded the state’s redistricting commission – and, in fact, happily engaged in gerrymandering themselves when they could.
Republicans Challenged the Gerrymander
The most blatant example occurred after the 1980 census as the Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown redrew legislative and congressional districts. The congressional plan, overseen by the late Congressman Phil Burton, grabbed several seats from Republicans with districts so bizarrely shaped that Burton called them “my contribution to modern art.”
Republicans challenged the gerrymander with a referendum, and voters voided the Democrats’ maps in 1982, but Brown and legislators simply enacted a slightly revised version just days before Brown ceded the governorship to Republican George Deukmejian.
Last year in California, Democrats flipped half of the GOP’s 14 congressional districts, including several in seemingly impregnable strongholds in Orange and San Diego counties.
A major and perhaps decisive reason for the Democratic sweep of targeted seats was “ballot harvesting,” which had been made legal by legislation passed by a Democratic Legislature and signed by Brown in 2016.
Previously, a voter’s ballot could be delivered only personally or by a relative. The new law authorized “any person” to do it, thus allowing partisan operatives to help voters fill out their ballots at home and then personally deliver them to election authorities. Huge numbers of ballots in the target districts were delivered at the last moment, and in several cases overturned what had appeared to be Republican wins.
The Direct Result of Ballot Harvesting
Orange County’s registrar of voters, Neal Kelley, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the county “certainly had that going on here, with people dropping off maybe 100 or 200 ballots” and the county’s GOP chairman, Fred Whitaker, said the party’s losses were the “direct result of ballot harvesting allowed under California law for the first time.”
Republican laments about the effects of ballot harvesting in California were matched only by Democratic jubilation about what they had wrought with the 2016 legislation. However, while Democrats celebrate ballot harvesting in California, they are complaining that it unfairly and illegally helped a Republican eke out a very narrow victory in a hotly contested North Carolina congressional district.
Republican Mark Harris seemingly defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes but Democrats claimed that a campaign operative for Harris illegally helped a decisive number of voters fill out their ballots and then personally delivered them to election officials in Bladen County.
Harris and his operative, L. McCrae Dowless, deny the allegations but last Thursday Harris agreed to void the election and conduct a new vote in the district. An election board that had been investigating the case quickly complied.
Both practices underscore an enduring axiom of politics: As with any competitive sport, changing the rules of the game can alter the outcome, so who controls the rules is just as important as the skill of the players.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.