You may think of it as lending a hand, but helping elderly neighbors to vote by collecting their absentee ballots and delivering them to the local election board could get you charged with committing a felony. As the countdown continues until the November elections, we should take a careful look at a new definition of "absentee ballot harvesting" signed into law by the governor. What follows is a review of how the law may get some well-intentioned people in serious trouble and what you can do to avoid running afoul of Oklahoma laws meant to stop voter fraud.
Some background about voter fraud
Voter fraud and mail-in voting have taken over the headlines all over America. Mailing ballots to voters who fill in their selections and mail or take the completed ballots to their local election boards is a breeding ground for voter fraud. At least, that is what some politicians and their spokespersons would have you believe. For instance, you don’t have to go any further than the current administration and President Trump’s “advice” that citizens vote more than once. That advice just might get you charged with a felony, however.
A recent article in The New York Times casts doubt on the extent of ballot harvesting and other forms of voter fraud in local, state, and federal elections. Those experts interviewed for the article agree that voter fraud rarely occur in U.S elections. Studies conducted following elections in recent years characterize fraud as being “negligible,” with one study putting the incident rate between .0003% and .0025%.
The experts interviewed by The Times also agree that voting by mail may present more of a risk for fraud than in-person voting. Ballot harvesting is one of the methods used to affect the outcome of an election.
Ballot harvesting is a crime
Some forms of behavior constituting "absentee ballot harvesting" under section 20 O.S. §14-101.1 of the Oklahoma Election Code include the following:
· Collecting absentee ballots from a voter for the purpose of submitting or returning it to election officials on the voter's behalf,
· Submitting or returning an absentee ballot to election officials on behalf of a voter,
· Using false pretenses to collect or obtain an absentee ballot from a voter, and
· Requesting an absentee ballot or receiving one on behalf of another voter.
The way ballot harvesting works in practice may at first appear to be nothing more than people helping to “get the vote out” by aiding voters who may need assistance getting to a post office or finding a witness to sign the outside of the return envelope of their ballot. In other situations, ballot harvesting can arguably be used to affect the result of an election.
For example, one state was forced to overturn the results of a congressional election in 2018. A new election was held after it came to light that a group of people working on behalf of one of the candidates collected absentee ballots from voters on the pretext of helping the person by delivering them to election officials. A state investigation accused some of the people in the group of collecting the ballots to manipulate the election by, among other things, not turning in ballots cast in support of the opposition.
Ballot harvesting in Oklahoma is a crime, and the number of ballots in question determines the severity of the offense. The Oklahoma Election Code allows prosecutors to charge someone with a felony when the incident involves ten or more ballots. The punishment may include imprisonment for up to five years, a fine of $50,000, or both a fine and imprisonment. Cases involving fewer than ten ballots may be charged as misdemeanors, but a conviction can still result in a $10,000 fine, incarceration for up to a year, or both a fine and incarceration.
Get advice from an Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney
While voting fraud may be rare, the Legislature’s broad language to define ballot harvesting could turn an innocent attempt to help into a criminal investigation. The statute recognizes a spouse and others who may be designated to assist a voter with an absentee ballot without violating the law. Still, the safest route to take when questions arise is to consult with an Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney. And please, don't vote twice.