Pelosi’s top priority was remaking the electoral system. The virus gave her a boost.
The Trump campaign is pressing its case that last week’s ballot counting was off, and it will get its day in court. But if Republicans want a fuller accounting of the shenanigans, they’ll need to look much further back than Election Day. They’ll need to internalize Nancy Pelosi’s H.R. 1, and then do battle.
House Resolution 1 is the designation for the first bill unveiled in any new Congress. It’s designed to highlight the majority party’s top priority. In early 2017, the Republican-led House gave the title to Donald Trump’s tax reform. When Mrs. Pelosi retook the speaker’s gavel in 2019, her party had just campaigned on a slew of urgent Democratic priorities: health care, climate change, immigration, student debt. None of these rose to the honor of H.R. 1.
Instead, Mrs. Pelosi unveiled a 600-plus page bill devoted to “election reform.” Some of the legislation was aimed at weaponizing campaign-finance law, giving Democrats more power to control political speech and to intimidate opponents. But the bill was equally focused on empowering the federal government to dictate how states conduct elections—with new rules designed to water down ballot integrity and to corral huge new tranches of Democratic voters.
The bill would require states to offer early voting. They also would have to allow Election Day and online voter registration, diluting the accuracy of voting rolls. H.R. 1 would make states register voters automatically from government databases, including federal welfare recipients. Colleges and universities were designated as voter-registration hubs, and 16-year-olds would be registered to vote two years in advance. The bill would require “no fault” absentee ballots, allowing anyone to vote by mail, for any reason. It envisioned prepaid postage for federal absentee ballots. It would cripple most state voter-ID laws. It left in place the “ballot harvesting” rules that let paid activists canvass neighborhoods to hoover up absentee votes.
Democrats grandly named their bill the For The People Act, but conservatives had better titles. This page called it the “Majority Preservation Act,” while the editors at National Review described it as an “Unconstitutional, Authoritarian Power Grab.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decried the bill as a “naked attempt to change the rules of American politics to benefit one party,” and dubbed it the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”
Mrs. Pelosi’s bill didn’t become law, despite her attempts this year to jam some of its provisions into coronavirus bills. But it turns out she didn’t really need it. Using the virus as an excuse, Democratic and liberal groups brought scores of lawsuits to force states to adopt its provisions. Many Democratic politicians and courts happily agreed. States mailed out ballots to everyone. Judges disregarded statutory deadlines for receipt of votes. They scrapped absentee-ballot witness requirements. States set up curbside voting and drop-off boxes. They signed off on ballot harvesting.
Meaning, “the fix” (as it were) was in well before anyone started counting votes. Pollsters aside, political operatives understood this election would be close—potentially closer in key states than it was in 2016. The Democratic strategy from the start, as evidenced by that legal onslaught, was to get rules in place that would allow them to flood the zone with additional mail-in ballots.
And of course there was harvesting—as these pages warned. This isn’t a new practice; candidates and campaigns have been honing it for years. Three years ago, the Palm Beach Post ran an expose on the practice in Florida. A North Carolina congressional race in 2018 was roiled by a ballot-harvesting operation, and a new election was ordered. This year simply offered the perfect environment to roll it out at new levels, and throughout the fall conservative groups were documenting examples.
Yet the beauty of ballot harvesting is that it is nearly impossible to prove fraud. How many harvesters offered to deliver votes, only to throw away inconvenient ones? How many voters were pushed or cajoled, or even paid—or had a ballot filled and returned for them without their knowledge? And this is before questions of what other mischief went on amid millions of mailed ballots (which went to wrong addresses or deceased people) and reduced voter verification rules. As the Heritage Foundation’s election expert Hans von Spakovsky has explained, mail-in voting is the “single worst form of election possible” because “it moves the entire election beyond the oversight of election officials.”
Republicans fought the worst changes but were up against the virus excuse. The question is whether they now understand the stakes. This election was a mere glimpse of the system Mrs. Pelosi wants nationwide, and she has already suggested “election reform” might again be her first priority in 2021. The GOP’s job is to harness voters’ frustration about the murky mess that was this year’s vote into a movement that demands transparency and renewed integrity of the ballot. Or risk a lot of 2020 repeats.
Appeared in the November 13, 2020, print edition as ‘Harvesting the 2020 Election’.