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Republicans Say Democrats' Election Reform Bill Doesn't Address Ballot Harvesting


Debate began today in the House on a bill to overhaul campaign finance and election laws. Democratic leaders are calling it a top priority now that they control the House. The legislation includes provisions for automatic voter registration, mandates for paper ballots in all federal elections and would make Election Day a federal holiday. Republicans oppose the plan. They call it the Politician Protection Act. And they're asking why it doesn't include a provision that they say would prevent the kind of fraud exposed earlier this year in a North Carolina congressional election. NPR's Miles Parks has more.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear on the Senate floor that he thinks something big is missing in the House Democrats' plan to overhaul election laws.


MITCH MCCONNELL: It is suspiciously silent on the murky ballot harvesting practices that recently threw North Carolina's 9th Congressional District into total chaos.

PARKS: What he's talking about when he says ballot harvesting is the collecting and returning of vote-by-mail ballots that aren't your own. In North Carolina, investigators found that a campaign operative was collecting and potentially manipulating ballots. That led the state Board of Elections to call for a new election in the 9th District. It is already illegal to collect absentee ballots in North Carolina, but the practice is allowed in at least 19 other states, including many that vote mostly by mail. Republicans and McConnell want that changed.


MCCONNELL: Pages and pages rewriting election law but nothing on this actual problem?

PARKS: But there's no indication House Democrats plan to adjust their bill. At a hearing about the legislation, Maryland Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin contrasted what happened in North Carolina to someone innocently turning in someone else's ballot.


JAMIE RASKIN: That's - this guy is not in trouble because he delivered somebody's ballot successfully to the Board of Elections. He's in trouble because he committed voter fraud. Any - you know, anybody, any third-grader would recognize that what he did was to try to distort and alter the outcome of the election.

PARKS: Many former election officials and experts also don't see ballot harvesting as a problem that needs to be banned completely. Amber McReynolds oversaw elections in Denver, Colo., for 13 years. Now she's executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute.

AMBER MCREYNOLDS: Ballot harvesting is not a term that's used in the election community. I think it was a term created by people who, frankly, don't want to see expanded options for voters.

PARKS: She says states can decrease the potential for fraud without banning the collection of mail ballots, which can make voting more accessible for some people. She suggests providing voters more locations where they can turn their ballots in and even potentially paying for their return postage. It's important for voters to not feel confused or reliant on third parties, McReynolds says.

MCREYNOLDS: When you limit individual voters with options, you're basically setting up conditions for people to take advantage of those limitations and exploit them.

PARKS: The debate around vote-by-mail policy is only going to get louder in the coming years. The percentage of people who vote by mail has doubled over the past two decades, with more than 1 in 5 voters turning in their ballots by mail in 2016. Miles Parks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.