“Ballot Harvesting”: How Was It Played in 2018? Will It Repeat in 2020?

Narration: The American people elected a new Congress, but an increasing percentage of them think there is a problem with how it was done.

Shawn Steel: They fill out a ballot at home, and then a stranger shows up and asks for their ballot. And so we don’t know what happens to that ballot.

George Braun: Fourteen districts in California in Orange County, 7 of them went—were ahead on election day, all of a sudden lost by 5-6,000 votes after the election because of this thing.

Narration: Will the presidential election process be fair in 2020?

George Braun: What you’re going to see is they’re going to use the same tactics that they used in California, where it worked.

Narration: Is America’s democratic system under attack? Can it be fixed?

Title: “Ballot Harvesting”: How Was It Played in 2018? Will It Repeat in 2020?

Simone Gao: On the night of Nov. 6, Republicans knew they lost control of the House of Representatives. But one saving grace is that the “blue wave” Democrats touted going into the 2018 midterms did not realize. Technically, at the end of the night, Democrats could not confirm they won at least 23 seats, and others were still pending. Now, six weeks after the election, in virtually every pending House contest, the Democratic candidate was declared the winner, giving House Democrats a net gain of 40 seats. What happened? How did House Republicans go from barely holding on to the lower chamber of Congress to going into the new congressional session with 199 seats to the Democrat’s 235 seats in the weeks after the election was over. On the eve of the new congressional session, we’ll look at why House Republicans lost the confidence of the American people and what role “ballot-harvesting” played after the polls closed. Let’s explore the true story behind the 2018 midterms in this episode of “Zooming In.”

Part 1: California Republicans Lose Half Their Seats

Narration: In the five presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, California voted for the Republican candidate. There was even talk that California Republican dominance of the Golden State was part of the GOP’s lock on the electoral college. The heart of the Republican Party in California was Orange County. It is a vast stretch of farms, beaches and a legacy of agriculture between Los Angeles and San Diego. It is the home of Disneyland, and also the birthplace of President Richard Nixon and the site of his presidential library. In the 2018 midterms, the Democrats flipped the five seats in Orange County still held by the GOP, making it a clean sweep.

Narration: On Election Day, the state’s 52-seat delegation had 39 Democrats and 14 Republicans. In January, it will be 45 Democrats and 8 Republicans.

Narration: Shawn Steel, the former chairman of the California Republican Party, told “Zooming In” that, despite the talk of a blue wave, Republicans were fighting back. In the days before the polls closed, polling showed the Republicans were still holding on.

Shawn Steel: They would have to win half the Republican delegation. There’s 14 Republicans. They’re targeting seven. They will not win seven. Today, I would say they will win one for sure, and three are undecided. So they’re not going to get enough from California to conquer the House.

Simone Gao: Shawn Steel was the chairman of the California Republican Party from 2001 to 2003. He is now a national committeeman from the state. He joins us now to look back at how the 2018 midterms played out for his party.

Simone Gao: Thank you for coming on with us, Shawn. The last time we spoke, it was right before the midterm election, and you were optimistic about Republican prospects. Now, as we are about to begin a new congressional session, there is no way to say the GOP did well. But there is still a big difference between what it looked like by the end of the election night and six weeks later. Tell me when you realized that all the late counts were going against the Republicans?

Shawn Steel: Democrats have reinvented voting. It used to be you go out to vote on election day, and this is where it’s true in most of America, but California’s different. But you used to go and vote, and about 2 o’clock in the morning on a close race you found out who won. Sadly, in California, you find out who the real winner is about two weeks after the election. It’s called a late count. The late count means that there’s lots of deals going on, lots of different ways to vote, lots of ballots coming in very, very late. And we have this new mechanism called ballot harvesting. That means professional people can go door-to-door, get ballots, and then turn them in themselves. And that causes a great deal of controversy. In North Carolina, a Republican is accused of ballot harvesting, and he may lose his seat. But the ballot harvesting in California, it’s a Democrat state, there’s not going to be any professional investigation, although there’s some private investigations. Whenever you give your ballot to a stranger, there’s nothing good that can come out of that.

Simone Gao: In one of your articles reflecting on the midterms, you said there was no need for voter fraud. Democrats know it’s easier to erode voter integrity laws than to stuff ballot boxes. Explain this to me, please.

Shawn Steel: Well, it means—the old idea of Chicago, which is one of the most corrupt cities in the world, you would have dead people voting regularly. Thousands of dead people would vote. It was a miracle. It was like a religious experience. The trouble is you had live people pretending to be a voter who was actually dead. So you’d have people showing up multiple times in different precincts to vote. That’s the old-fashioned fraud. Today it’s different. Now you have people that are registered to vote. They fill out a ballot at home, and then a stranger shows up and asks for their ballot. And so we don’t know what happens to that ballot. Once it’s in the hands of a stranger, he can do anything he wants with it. For example, the Republicans are accused of taking ballots from Democrats and not even having them vote, not turning them in. In California, it looks like several of these ballot harvesters were actually writing in the votes themselves, sealing the envelopes themselves, and then turning them in all at once on election day. Some precincts got over a thousand of these ballots on the same day of people that could have mailed them weeks earlier. It’s very suspicious and uncomfortable.

Simone Gao: Can you share with us a conversation with a candidate or someone in one of the defeated campaigns? What did they tell you about how they felt about the campaign and the results?

Shawn Steel: I talked to all of them: Congressman Rohrabacher, Congresswoman Mimi Walters, Young Kim, a candidate. They all lost by just a few percentage points. Nobody anticipated ballot harvesting. It’s a new animal, a new product in California. Nobody understood how big and powerful of a tool it is for getting the extra votes to win. Remember, on election night Dana Rohrabacher was 50-50, Young Kim was 14 points ahead in her district in Orange County, and Mimi Walters was ahead by 6 points. So we thought that Rohrabacher might be in trouble. Never dreamed that—Mimi Walters was popular, hard-working, and Young Kim, who’s a star, would ever lose. But day after day, a couple of weeks would go by and all these late ballots came in and changed the outcome. So it’s a new technique that Republicans have to learn and adapt. Most states you cannot do ballot harvesting. As a matter of fact, in Texas they changed the law. It’s illegal to ballot harvest in Texas. And other states that have prohibited, if you take some stranger’s ballot, you can go to jail. But in California, it’s the very opposite. It’s great for Democrats.

Narration: Coming up, Democrats and Republicans played different games. Will their strategies affect how voters vote in the 2020 elections?

Part 2: Democrats Went on Offense

Mike Pence: It is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce to you, the President-Elect of the United States of America, Donald Trump.

Narration: From the morning Democrats woke up to learn that New York real estate developer Donald Trump was elected president, the 2018 battle for control of the House of Representatives turned on whether Democrats could sustain their passion and bring their voters to the polls.

Narration: It turned out, they were successful.

Narration: In non-presidential election years, there is a routine drop off in voter participation. In 2018, the drop off for the Democrats was 4 percent. It was 20 percent for Republicans.

Narration: Lowered enthusiasm does not just apply to voters. For the 2018 midterm elections, 39 House seats did not have a Republican candidate on the ballot. Their counterparts were obviously playing another game.

Narration: Instead of treating their seats as a fortress, Democrats went on offense. They field-tested this “challenge everywhere and everyone” strategy in Virginia’s off-cycle election in 2017. For the first time in decades, Democrats had a candidate on the ballot for all 100 assembly seats. By pressing Virginia Republicans, some who had never dealt with a challenger, Democrats picked up 15 seats, leaving the GOP with a bleak 51-to-49 majority.

Narration: Based on Virginia’s success, the Democrats scaled it up nationally.

Narration: At the beginning of the year, both parties announced the incumbents they were targeting. Republicans released a list of 36 Democratic-held targets. Meanwhile, the Democrats had a list of 101 targeted seats. Not a single House Democratic incumbent lost in 2018.

Simone Gao: Are these mistakes by Republican leadership on a strategic level? Here is what Shawn Steel has to say.

Simone Gao: Going into 2020, what is the biggest lesson you learned from 2018?

Shawn Steel: Well, first of all, we have to understand that it used to be a lot of people didn’t vote. We’re seeing that there’s much more interest in voting than ever before, and that’s a good thing. I don’t care what party they’re from if people show up and vote. The bad thing is that, if people vote, but they give their away their ballot to a stranger, that should be discouraged. They should be encouraged to go to the polls themselves to vote. So that’s a big lesson. We want people to vote, but do it yourself. Make sure that your vote is safe, not in some stranger’s pocket. Secondly, Republicans have a lot more work to do with minorities, more than ever. And minorities need to understand that Republicans are their best and safest bet for real prosperity, or otherwise they’re looking at a potential North Korea. They’re looking at a Venezuela, a socialist state where very few people prosper or benefit.

Simone Gao: Other than compromise on voter integrity laws, did Republican leadership miscalculate in other areas?

Shawn Steel: Well, I’ll tell you, miscalculation is always when you lose, and you have to study everything. And the Republicans lost by very small margins. So it wasn’t like a popular uprising where Republicans lost by 20 or 30 percentage points. It was 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent. But what also happened is that the Democrats have mastered what’s called dark money. They have several billionaires funding this, wealthy, liberal, left-wing billionaires like Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg Incorporated, and Tom Steyer. They put in lots of money, hundreds of millions of dollars in these political action committees. And we’re going to find out in January how much money they spent. So far, what’s been reported, the Democrats spent 200 million dollars to take over seven congressional seats. Now, think about that: 200 million dollars is an astonishing number. And that’s so much money that you could actually buy countries in central Europe with that, political elections. It’s real naked power. But for California, we never anticipated that much money. Now, the Republicans weren’t cheap. They had 60 million dollars on their side, but you can see there’s a three-to-one advantage on that. So we didn’t expect the billionaires to come in in such a big, bold way. It’s a very good lesson for us. You know, you talk about the party of big money and big wealth, the key is is that with big money you can go ahead and really change outcomes of elections.

Simone Gao: How do you respond to Democrats’ big money in the future then?

Shawn Steel: Well, we know that that big money is not going to be available for the Democrats in California because those billionaires, two of them, the two ones that I mentioned, Tom Steyer of San Francisco and Bloomberg of New York, they’re both running for president. That’s why they put so much money in. They’re going to put their money in their presidential campaigns. So the Democrats are going to have two billionaires running and maybe 18 other people. So they’re going to be tied up in their own primary fighting each other and attacking each other and trying to see who their nominee is going to be. So maybe this amount of money is just once in a 20-year phenomena. I don’t know. I don’t think we’re going to see in California that kind of 200 million dollars for seven congressional seats. It used to be a big deal if you had a million dollars for a congressional seat. But 200 is just a number we’ve never seen in American politics ever in our history.

Narration: Coming up, what ground game have democrats played? Will they be able to win the 2020 election by playing the same game?

Part 3: Democrats’ Ground Game Will Likely Repeat in 2020

Simone Gao: Despite strategic mistakes, the fact remains that going into the midterm elections, polling showed the Republicans losing 20-to-25 seats, not 40. So that brings us back to how Democrats operated on the ground to generate a midterm turnout that nearly matched their presidential turnout.

Narration: Fifteen years ago, Republican operatives developed 72-hour teams. They were made up of specialized campaign staffers who would swoop into a campaign in the last three days before voters went to the polls. These teams revolutionized electioneering as they came in without warning and ramped up enthusiasm with get-out-the-vote efforts.

Narration: To counter these 72-hour teams, Democrats worked to change voting laws. Early absentee voting was always available to voters with valid reasons for not voting on Election Day. But the new laws allowed for “no excuse” early voting.

Narration: Early voting changed the dynamic. Instead of 72-hour teams, Democrats developed 30-day teams. Weeks before an election, party operatives could mobilize voters to get to polls with time to follow-up and repeatedly get back to them—instead of the short 12-hour window on election day.

Narration: Early voting has changed campaign strategy and even polling as pollsters now have to ask respondents if they have already cast their vote. The remaining hurdle was that, in early voting, operatives still had to get voters physically to the polls.

Narration: In the 2018 midterms, for the first time, we saw Democrats use a large-scale hybrid tactic called ballot harvesting. Ballot harvesting is the early collection of ballots from voters, so that they do not have to travel to the polling station.

Narration: According to the California Secretary of State’s office, during the last midterm election in 2014, California voters turned in 4.5 million absentee ballots. This year, there were 8.3 million.

Simone Gao: George Braun is a Washington D.C. attorney and a member of the Supreme Court bar. George was a law clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and he also worked as White House lawyer for President George W. Bush. For many years, he has been part of a group of Republican lawyers who volunteer as election observers. George is an expert in voter fraud and Democratic tactics. I asked him about ballot harvesting and voter fraud in California.

Simone Gao: So George, why did absentee ballots benefit Democrats more?

George Braun: Well, in California, because of the fact that they didn’t—they basically harvested just those places. On the internet you can see a gal by the name of Lulu going to a house. The parents who answered the door and had a camera on her because of the doorbell camera, were Republicans. The daughter was a Democrat. And she said that this was a service to pick up the ballot and we can help you and—but she wouldn’t say who she was a service by. And she didn’t ask for anybody else’s ballots in the house. And since she’s not registered with anybody, she’s not a registered poll watcher, she’s not a registered person from the state, she’s just a political operative that we know. The only rule in California is you can’t be paid to do this. But who’s going to watch that one? So my question is, is that when they come in—and when you see 14 districts in California in Orange County, 7 of them went—were ahead on election day, when 100 percent of the ballots had been counted, all of a sudden lost by 5, 6,000 votes after the election because of this thing. You’re seeing insidious voter fraud. And what we saw down in the special election for the Senate, Ron [sic] Moore, we now know that the Democrats were doing the same thing as what the Russians were accused of. They’ve admitted it. You saw, in numerous states, where—especially Georgia where they had—they brought people in from other states to vote, young people, college students and everything else, and gave them college IDs to vote. We don’t know that that college ID, other than it went for somebody’s name, we don’t know that person is really the person that goes through it. But when you bus in that many people—now, the Georgia governor’s race where she said that she was, you know, they disenfranchised and did a number of other things, that was all under the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party originally came up with all these rules that every three years, if you haven’t voted, they contact you to see whether or not you’re still in the state, haven’t moved someplace else, and then will take your vote away. Then you don’t get to vote. There was—or if you died, if you’re listed on there, we have to purge a number of these so that people don’t go through it. I used to vote in San Diego, California. I now vote in Yuma, Arizona. But when I canceled my ballot in California—I’ve canceled it twice. But this last election I got one in the mail saying that—you know, I shredded it, but the thing is, that even though I canceled it in writing twice, they still sent me an absentee ballot here in Washington D.C., even though I’m registered in Arizona now. And went back and actually went through it. So if I’d wanted to, I could have voted in both states.

Simone Gao: Going into 2020, how will these tactics, legal or illegal, affect the upcoming presidential election?

George Braun: Well, what you’re going to see is they’re going to use the same tactics that they used in California, where it worked, Georgia. They basically have been trying different tactics where they can see where you have large—Florida, they’re going to use those in the swing states that they need. That’s one of the things that is insidious when you’re watching the returns in 2016. All of a sudden there was no returns for a while that were released. Well, one of the reasons is because they’re trying to figure out where to get more votes where they need them. And this has been going on. Had Richard Nixon fought the election in 1960, he would have been president. But he didn’t want to put the government, the country through that. In 2001 when Bush v. Gore went to the Supreme Court, the Democrats only wanted to count specific counties, recount specific counties. And the Supreme Court said you have to recount all of them if you’re going to recount them. That’s the law in Florida. And when—and that was the original decision that came down. But what actually happened was they ran into the final part which was, whether you like it or not, by this day all ballots had to be turned in. And that’s when we decide. You can’t just keep recounting the vote. And it’s, as we’ve seen, in Minnesota when Al Franken ran, if you continued to recount, they did the recount 27 times, he lost 26 times. He won the 27th time and became a Senator. How many times do you recount? And why doesn’t it come down to, well, you lost 26 times, the 27th one shouldn’t matter. You know, three out of five, that kind of a thing. And you still got to remember, as far as it still goes, it’s come down, in a lot of elections, during the primaries. Hillary Clinton had a coin flip on nine different occasions. Unbelievably, she won the coin flip in all nine times. Do you know what the odds are that you would win a coin flip nine continuous times? Astronomical.

Simone Gao: What are your suggestions to Republicans for 2020? Should they copy the Democratic tactics or try to either enforce or change the laws?

George Braun: Well, first off, we’ve got to change the laws as far as how an absentee ballot is counted. And second thing is, there should be a change—every single state has to have a chain of custody to where you can’t just all of a sudden have a whole bunch of ballots show up—or find, like we did in Broward County in Florida, where we’re finding ballots in the back of cars, at the airport, we’re finding boxes of ballots in classrooms. Why are we finding ballots all over this place? If they get outside of the chain of command, they should immediately be destroyed. And if they got outside of the thing, who let it get outside. Because of the fact that, when I was working in Florida, it’s 7 o’clock when the ballot closed—I mean, when the precinct closed balloting. I put somebody in line, the last person there at 7 o’clock. If you were in line before that person at 7 o’clock, you got to vote whether or not it was 8 o’clock or 9 o’clock by the time we finally got to you. But that person was the last person. At that time, there should have been a number. And what happened in 2018 was the gal couldn’t say. Within 20 minutes, you’re required to be able to tell how many people voted at each precinct. If you can’t give that, there’s a problem. And so what we saw is because—and then all of a sudden the numbers would go up. Well, this many people voted. Well, how do we know that? And what the Republicans need to do is to count every single ballot at that time. Now, we’ve got to stop the idea that you can register on the day of the vote. We’ve got to do something about this provisional ballots. And, more importantly, we’ve got to do something about the idea that somebody’s going to be knocking on somebody’s door saying you need to vote. Because the right not to vote in this country is just as important as the right to vote.

Simone Gao: I believe Republicans will learn the lessons from the 2018 midterm elections and do better in 2020. But we should keep one important thing in mind: tactics can’t get us too far. For both parties, regaining the soul of the party and winning people’s hearts with those principles is the ultimate strategy. I hope leading to 2020, we will have more discussion on those matters. Thanks for watching Zooming In. Please like our Facebook page and subscribe to our YouTube channel at “Zooming In with Simone Gao.” Happy Holidays!