Respected Wall Street Journal reporter Kimberley Strassel recently joined the chorus of prominent Republican voices suggesting that it’s past time that the GOP mounted a counterpart to the Democrats’ mail in voting, ballot harvesting scheme.
According to Strassel, it will be straightforward: “Republicans (like Democrats before them) will…obtain lists of voters who have requested ballots and set up ballot-chasing programs. In many states, that means knocking on doors and prodding voters to get their votes in [on] that day. In states that allow ballot harvesting, it will mean paid field operatives who outright collect finished ballots.”
The implication is that setting up Republican ballot harvesting operations would be both simple and costless, if only Republicans would get over their “Everybody should vote on election day” fetish.
But in a world of underfunded Republican campaigns, and relatively low levels of “dark money” spending compared to Democrats, new spending on ballot harvesting would entail an opportunity cost of even less campaign spending and GOP aligned 501(c)(4) dark money advocacy.
Speaking to opponents of ballot harvesting, prominent conservative activist Ned Ryun has stated, “In all their objections [to ballot harvesting], none have described just how not engaging in harvesting will lead to victory. Not. One.”
But there is a way in which attempting to match Democrats at their ballot harvesting game would actually lead to more Republican losses, and that is if new GOP spending on ballot harvesting crowds out already low levels of campaign spending and the relative trickle of Republican aligned 501(c)(4) spending compared to Democrats.
Republicans Converts to Ballot Harvesting Have Failed to Consider The Opportunity Cost of Chasing Mail In Ballots
In our recent work we describe the vast institutional apparatus in the form of 501(c)(3) organizations and charitable foundations that are dedicated to changing election laws and norms in ways that favor Democratic candidates.
Republicans do not seem to understand the byzantine complexity and statistical sophistication of the institutions that coordinate the Democrats’ voter canvassing and ballot harvesting operations at their current scale, nor do they comprehend the vast expense that has been incurred in building up the Democrats’ sprawling Election – Industrial Complex.
Attempts to match Democrats at ballot harvesting would therefore entail a serious cost to Republicans, and these costs have yet to be acknowledged by GOP strategists who are jumping on the ballot harvesting bandwagon.
Republicans should think of these costs not simply in terms of labor and money, but in terms of the opportunity cost of using scarce resources to finance a risky endeavor in which Republicans have virtually no experience.
If Republicans decide to do more chasing after elusive mail in ballots, they are going to have to do less of something else. And in the current climate, that “something else” will be in the areas of campaigning and 501(c)(4) advocacy – areas in which Republicans are already heavily outspent – despite the fact that these are the very areas in which Republican strengths lie.
For Democrats, Ballot Harvesting is a Substitute for Persuading and Motivating Voters
Democrats know that Republicans have an advantage in the area of persuading and motivating individual voters, which is why they have become fixated on legal, technical, and data driven manipulation of elections since 2016.
Democrats’ growing weakness in conventional political campaigning has increasingly been offset by a technical focus on the statistical worlds of demographics and geography, and increasing vote totals through targeted voter registration, mass distribution of mail-in ballots, micro targeted ballot canvassing and outright ballot harvesting.
For example, the $320 million of “Zuckerbucks” spent by The Center for Tech and Civic Life in 2020 was not spent on persuading individuals to vote Democrat, but on turning election offices into partisan absentee ballot gathering operations and mobilizing demographic groups in key areas that tend to vote as a Democratic Party bloc.
Some Democrats explicitly acknowledge that Republicans have major advantages in conventional campaigning and advocacy even though they are vastly outspent. As Democratic strategist Ruy Texiera admits, “Democrats…love the idea that they can safely disregard all that messy persuasion stuff to focus on rising demographics and mobilize, mobilize, mobilize.”
Targeted ballot harvesting based on demographics and location is the most sophisticated example of the Democrats’ “mobilization” strategy so far. This is why Democrats have grown increasingly reliant over the last six years on complex statistical models, big data, and dedicated election activists to locate tranches of Democratic mail-in ballots and get them into election offices, rather than on persuading voters to go to the polls.
But this doesn’t mean that Republicans would have equal success if they adopted the same strategy. Democrats rely so heavily on ballot harvesting and election manipulation because they have no other way to win close elections.
Republicans have other, more time-tested ways to win, as long as generating real enthusiasm and conscious support among actual voters continues to matter. Diverting scarce resources toward a clumsy attempt at ballot harvesting would therefore contribute toward more GOP losses in close races if it crowds out already low levels of campaign spending and 501(c)(4) dark money advocacy.
Democrats Leave Republicans in The Dust When it Comes to Campaign Spending and ‘Dark Money’ Advocacy
In important races in 2022 where Republicans should have been “all hands on deck,” they were decisively outspent by Democrats. Before Republicans think about making a large investment in ballot harvesting with deeply uncertain results, they should specify how much conventional campaign and 501(c)(4) advocacy spending they think should not take place in order to enable additional spending on building up a ballot harvesting infrastructure.
Playing catch up in the areas of campaign spending and dark money advocacy would be more than a full time job for Republicans. In terms of campaign spending, Joe Biden outspent Donald Trump by a large margin, spending $1.06 billion to Donald Trump’s $785 million in 2020.
In Senate Races in 2022, Democrats spent a little over $1 billion compared to Republicans $760 million. Republicans would have to increase their spending by a full 33%, or $250 million dollars, in order to achieve parity with Democrats in campaign spending for the Senate.
New GOP spending on ballot harvesting would result in even less campaign spending on crucial Senate races, with control of the Senate hinging on one or two key races in 2024.
Democrats also enjoy a significant advantage in the area of partisan dark money spending. A recent New York Times investigation outlines the advantage that 501(c)(4) nonprofits gave Democrats in 2020, where spending by major nonprofit groups aligned with the Democrat Party totaled about $1.7 billion, almost twice the level of Republican aligned dark money spending of about $970 million.
Democrats Fear Well Funded Republican Candidates and Issues Based 501(c)(4) Advocacy More Than Anything
Democrats would not be threatened by an inexperienced Republican ballot harvesting effort. Nobody on the Democratic side is losing any sleep over the increased clamor for Republicans to mount their own ballot harvesting operation.
They would, however, be seriously threatened by well funded Republican candidates who are capable of generating real voter enthusiasm, and by increased 501(c)(4) advocacy which would highlight the unpopularity and extremism of far left Democrat policies in competitive states. Republicans should seek spending parity in these areas before they contemplate any new spending on ballot harvesting.
Quality candidates who are able to mount well funded campaigns supported by increased amounts of GOP aligned 501(c)(4) spending is the Democrats’ worst nightmare. A clumsy and disorganized effort to assemble a pale Republican imitation of the Democrats’ Election – Industrial complex – which resulted in even less campaign and advocacy spending – is more like a Democrats’ dream come true.
William Doyle, Ph.D. is Research Director at the Caesar Rodney Election Research Institute in Irving, TX. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Economics at the University Level for 27 years. His work has appeared in The New York Post, American Greatness, The Federalist, The American Conservative, RealClearInvestigations, and The Wall Street Journal. He specializes in American Elections and American Economic History.