Reluctant to let a good crisis go to waste, California Governor Gavin Newsom last month issued an executive order directing that mail-in ballots for the presidential election be provided to all registered voters in the Golden State. The reason? “To preserve public health in the face of the threat of Covid-19.”
Last week, Judicial Watch asked a California federal court to halt this breathtaking display of political opportunism.
As Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton noted in recent testimony to Congress, the Newsom executive order was a particularly cynical move.
While Newsom “has relied on his emergency powers in the face of the pandemic to order all-mail ballot elections,” Tom said, “he has notably failed to restrict ballot harvesting under state law, which allows paid employees of public sector unions, among others, to go door-to-door gathering ballots from strangers, even helping those voters fill them out. Public health, in other words, is cited as a justification when it is convenient, and is ignored when it is inconvenient. This is just the kind of self-interested, partisan game-playing that causes Americans voters to react with disgust at how we conduct our elections.”
But what harm could a mail-in ballot—also known as an absentee ballot—do?
Plenty, it turns out.
The bipartisan 2005 Carter-Baker Commission noted that “absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud…. Absentee balloting is vulnerable to abuse in several ways: blank ballots mailed to the wrong address or to a large residential building might get intercepted. Citizens who vote at home, at nursing homes, at the workplace, or in church are more susceptible to pressure, overt and subtle, or to intimidation. Vote buying schemes are far more difficult to detect when citizens vote by mail.”
Tom noted the Carter-Baker findings in his Congressional testimony, but he zeroed in on a bigger issue: the sweeping collapse of voter registration lists around the country and its impact on clean elections. Judicial Watch is the national leader in election reform, fighting for enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act. We’re investigating NVRA abuses across the country, including in California, Maryland, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado.
States are required by the NVRA to remove so-called “inactive voters” from registration rolls if they do not respond to an address confirmation notice and then fail to vote in the next two general federal elections. These inactive voters are usually people who have died or moved. I noted in an earlier bulletin that leaving the names of inactive voters on registration rolls creates opportunities for fraud, such as dead people voting or double voting. Critics argue that these concerns are overblown, but sometimes it only takes a few votes to swing an election.
California is a prime example of the inactive voter threat. A Judicial Watch investigation uncovered 1.6 million inactive voters on Los Angeles County voting rolls. Our investigation found that Los Angeles County had more voter registrations on its rolls than actual voting age citizens in the county, and that the entire state had a voter registration rate of 101% of age-eligible citizens. In 2017, we sued to force a cleanup.
Last year, California capitulated, agreeing to settle our lawsuit and remove inactive voters from its rolls.
But that’s a process that won’t be completed until 2022. And meanwhile, as Tom told Congress, under the terms of Gov. Newsom’s executive order, “these 1.6 million inactive registrations, the vast majority of whom no longer reside in Los Angeles County, California, should receive ballots. Circulating all those live ballots, unmonitored by their original owners who have moved or died, is a threat to the integrity of California’s elections.”
It’s not just conservatives who are worried about California’s mail-in ballot problems. A study by the Stanford Law School—hardly a bastion of reactionary thought—conducted before the pandemic hit and published last month concluded that vote-by-mail raises “a variety of concerns.” Among them: at-home voters are susceptible to pressure from family members; votes get lost in the mail; requested ballots don’t always make it to the voter; and problems with signature identification and verifications.
We have asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California to issue a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of Gov. Newsom’s fear-mongering “public health” order on mail-in ballots. “We can see that people will exercise their First Amendment rights if they think it’s important,” Tom told Congress. “Voting is important, and they will vote in person. And they should be able to vote in person without being scared to death about doing it.”
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
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