In the wake of Republican disappointments in the midterms, many in the GOP have claimed that Democrats abused the practice of “ballot harvesting,” which involves voters handing their absentee ballot to someone else to cast on their behalf. Some Republicans are calling for ballot harvesting to be outlawed altogether following the midterm defeats—a position continuous with the party’s complaints about mail-in voting after the 2020 presidential election and, more broadly, its longstanding warnings about the threat of voter fraud.

“Political machines offered a means of pursuing collective political action.”

Some conservatives, however, seem to be having a change of perspective. Fox contributor Katie Pavlich, for example, recently tweeted: “Republicans either adapt to mail-in voting and ballot harvesting, or they don’t win.” Similar messages echoed across the conservative commentariat online. Former Trump adviser Larry Kudlow remarked on his Fox Business show: “Republicans desperately need their own mail-in ballot-harvesting get-out-the-vote operation.” Perhaps the most forceful statement of the can’t-beat-’em-join-’em position came from GOP activist Ned Ryun, founder of the political-training organization American Majority, who tweeted, “The only thing that matters between now and 2024 is figuring out how we create our own early-voting/ballot-harvesting machine.”

What’s at stake here goes beyond electoral strategy. Similar debates have played out at various points in American history—notably, in controversies around the urban political machines that wielded immense influence in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since their demise, the old machines have had a mostly negative reputation. But however imperfect they were, the political machines of the past offered a means of pursuing collective political action in the face of an array of obstacles. Anyone attempting to resurrect a populist agenda in the present should study their example.

Ballot harvesting—or more neutrally, third-party ballot collection—differs practically from the operations of the old political machines, which largely functioned prior to the advent of mail-in voting. But it has resuscitated many of the complaints made by political reformers over a century ago. The problem critics see with machine politics, then as now, goes beyond allegations of outright fraud. More fundamentally, it proceeds from deep suspicion about a social and collective mode of political action at odds with the assumption that voting should be the act of an autonomous individual.

The ballot-harvesting debate tacitly recognizes the social dimension this practice brings to voting. Republicans argue that it opens the door to coercion and manipulation of voters by partisan vote collectors—implying that the ideal voter is one who makes decisions on an individual basis, rather than being swayed by others. Conversely, Democrats who defend mail-in voting and third-party ballot collection argue that certain populations, such as Latinos and Native Americans, depend on these options and that restricting it effectively disenfranchises these populations—an echo of older machine operations, which were typically organized along ethnic lines. This defense hints that the benefit of such practices is to channel collective, rather than individual, preferences, while not outright saying so.

Attempts to restrict ballot harvesting limit the social reach of voting by limiting who can collect ballots on behalf of whom: Hence, in some (mostly but not entirely conservative) states, one can only give one’s ballot to a family member. Still, the more common arrangement is that anyone voters designate may collect their ballots, which opens the possibility for political operatives to collect large numbers of ballots which they then cast in a bundle. It is here that contemporary ballot-collection practices would most closely resemble the much-maligned machine operations of old. But even in states that restrict third parties from collecting ballots, there are workarounds, such as submitting early-ballot-request forms for voters and then ensuring that they carry their ballots to their mailboxes.

The best way of evaluating the positives and negatives of ballot harvesting is by looking at specific instances of the practice in contemporary politics. One impressive—or disturbing—example is the machine Randy Parraz ran in Arizona before the state enacted a law in 2016 making it so only family members could deliver a voter’s absentee ballot. In 2011, Parraz put together an organization called Citizens for a Better Arizona to collect signatures for the recall of Russell Pearce, the anti-immigration state senator. After the recall measure passed, Parraz’s volunteers campaigned for Pearce’s moderate Republican challenger, Jerry Lewis, alongside other activist organizations.

“Why is ballot harvesting seen by many as intrinsically fraudulent?”

As Parraz recalled, “for 50 straight days, Latino voters felt the love and attention of hundreds of volunteers who finally came to their neighborhoods, came to their casas ... and said, ‘We need your vote.’” Finally, Parraz’s volunteers returned to pick up voters’ absentee ballots. As the Phoenix New Times reported, Parraz’s team “encouraged folks to fill out their early ballots on the spot, seal them, and turn them over to volunteers.” Presumably, there was little doubt about which bubble these voters filled in. With the help of CBA, Lewis won the election, and Parraz was established as a force in Copper State politics. His organization would be celebrated and castigated over the next several years, drawing particular ire over a viral video of a CBA operative dropping off a heavy box of ballots at a polling place in 2014.

Many will instinctively feel there was something unseemly about Parraz’s operation. But leaving aside one’s opinion on his specific cause, it’s hard to define just what was wrong with what Parraz did. He tried to influence people to vote a certain way. There is nothing illegal or obviously unethical about that: If that were the case, many other forms of political campaigning would also need to be banned. On its face, it’s hard to understand why delivering ballots on behalf of voters is much worse than, say, calling them and reminding them to go vote, a practice embraced by both parties. Why is ballot harvesting, which seems innocuous when broken into its constituent parts, seen by many as not merely an opportunity for illicit practices like vote tampering but intrinsically fraudulent?

It is here that the work of scholars who have studied the great political machines of the 19th century can offer crucial insights. By providing services to working-class neighborhoods, these organizations were able to consistently command large turnouts for their favored candidates. They also aroused great hostility, particularly among middle- and upper-class reformers. The historian Alexander Keyssar, in his 2000 book, Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, asserted that when 19th-century reformers talked about corruption in elections, they were often talking not necessarily about outright cheating but “practices that seemed (to them) inappropriate.”

In this way, the contemporary controversy about mail-in voting, beyond its simple partisan stakes, reveals a deeper divide about the nature of American democracy. The sociologist Robert K. Merton, in his seminal book, Social Theory and Social Structure (1949), contended that the essential function of the political machine was to “organize [and] centralize . . . ‘the scattered fragments of power’ which are at present dispersed through our political organization.” Examples of institutional forces that “scatter” and power and thus check the popular will include  the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review and its insulation from the electorate, the staggered terms of elected officials that prevent radical changes in government, and the difficulty of amending the constitution.

“Political machines overcome the diffusion of the political power of the masses.”

Political machines, in Merton’s account, offer a means of overcoming precisely the dilution and diffusion of the political power of the masses imposed by this system. Government at the state, national, and local levels is constituted in such a way that it is very difficult for even a majority with a shared set of needs to get these needs met expediently. The political machine offered a way around some of these obstacles. Merton mostly discusses how the machines met needs through the provision of direct aid, but his analysis is also relevant to thinking about the political potential of a ballot-harvesting operation.

Ballot harvesting can be understood as a method for concentrating and directing the power that our system diffuses. One effect of our constitutional order is that it accustoms people to the idea that they can have only an imperceptible influence on political outcomes, and that the scope of change that can be effected through voting is narrow. Frustrated, they become neglectful of even the little power they do have. A ballot-harvesting machine can counteract this effect, uniting the fragments of a demoralized electorate and forging them into a potent political force.

Such a machine can do more than elect candidates. It can win recall votes, replace elected officials, and pass ballot initiatives and referendums. These are all tools of direct democracy. For instance, an initiative allows voters to place a law on the ballot, while a referendum enables citizens to vote directly on legislation. Appropriately, historians have credited the adoption of these measures to the influence of the Populists, the turn-of-the-century agrarian agitators spiritually descended from Daniel Shays, who led the early American republic’s first serious insurgency, over taxes in Massachusetts. If these tools were wielded effectively and regularly, direct democracy could become a genuine force in US politics. With the coordination of a machine, such a prospect becomes imaginable.

If conventional Republicans undertake a program of ballot harvesting, it will most likely be to grab some extra votes for their candidates. But a ballot-harvesting machine run by activists who truly understand and sympathize with the party’s working-class base could be something else altogether: an unparalleled tool for focusing and directing the popular will.

“The true political machine is an inherently personal enterprise.”

The true political machine is an inherently personal enterprise. It is the antithesis of contemporary party politics, in which the party encounters the people through data compiled by technocrats, and the people encounter the party through manipulative pop-up ads. The machine’s success is based on the personal understanding developed between its operatives and the community in which it operates. In the era of the great machines, this kind of understanding went well beyond Parraz’s “50 straight days” of “love and attention.” Ballot-harvesting drives oriented toward election cycles may involve more face-to-face contact than conventional campaigning, but this contact is still temporary and blatantly instrumental. In contrast, 19th-century political machines maintained a year-round presence in the communities they served, developing deep ties to their constituencies.

Perhaps the sharpest theorist of machine politics was himself one of the great machine operatives: one-time New York state Sen. and Tammany Hall leader George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, a book of Plunkitt’s transcribed speeches, is among the most entertaining primary sources in existence. In one speech, Plunkitt pronounced his contempt for ordinary methods of campaigning: “You ain’t goin’ to gain any votes by stuffin’ the letter boxes with campaign documents. Like as not you’ll lose votes, for there’s nothin’ a man hates more than to hear the letter-carrier ring his bell and go to the letter-box expectin’ to find a letter he was lookin’ for, and find only a lot of printed politics.” Instead, Plunkitt insisted the serious vote collector must “study human nature.” This could only be done through sustained contact with a particular community. (“To learn real human nature you have to go among the people, see them and be seen. I know every man, woman, and child in the 15th District, except them that’s been born this summer—and I know some of them, too. I know what they like and what they don’t like.”) Compared to Plunkitt’s method of operating, contemporary efforts at “outreach” seem decidedly anemic. Ordinary voters in an earlier America had a personal connection to a machine that their descendants almost never have to a conventional party.

Machines like Tammany Hall offered voters more than understanding. In a time when the welfare state was weak, they provided essential forms of relief to the working-poor constituents they represented. The ward boss who represented the machine in a given neighborhood provided everything from food assistance to legal aid. The boss offered a humane, non-judgmental alternative to other sources of relief. As Merton notes, “the unprofessional techniques of the precinct captain who asks no questions, exacts no compliance with legal rules of eligibility, and does not ‘snoop into private affairs’” contrasted favorably with prying, parsimonious approach of the municipal relief worker or settlement-house volunteer. Today, there are undoubtedly those who would rather visit a sympathetic, open-handed boss than the SNAP office. As Plunkitt reported, when a family was in need, he didn’t “refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead of starvation.” Instead, he would simply “fix them up until they get things running again.” Those pondering the virtues of machine politics shouldn’t forget this example. The most effective machine will be the one that can demonstrate its usefulness in the lives of ordinary people, and not just during election season.

The right’s flirtation with machine politics has potential. But it is a potential that can only be realized if the machine is understood as more than just another weapon in the partisan arsenal. Conservative activists shouldn’t seek to create operations that hustle votes during election season without a sustained commitment to the communities they operate in. Used properly, a ballot-harvesting machine could bring about a real revival of the democratic ethos. At its best, by coordinating the activity of voters, a machine can revive ordinary people’s sense of civic power. It can also, in the tradition of the old-time machines, function as a vital neighborhood institution, dispensing help where help is needed, and providing opportunities for ordinary people with ability as organizers. Such an undertaking will not come from anyone who is primarily concerned with racking up Republican victories. It is up to those with a broader, more hopeful, and more imaginative vision to make the most of this tool.

Hamilton Craig is a Compact columnist and a doctoral student at CUNY researching farmers’ movements in the United States.

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