If anyone thinks the flood of mail-in ballots the country witnessed in 2020 was just a one-off fluke, they haven’t been paying attention.
Vote by mail is the future of American democracy, with all the accompanying opportunities for ballot harvesting, mail fraud, and deceit—at least if the left has its way. This was evident in the failed For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1), the Democrat’s vision for federalizing U.S. elections into a top-down nightmare that undermines voter I.D. laws and forces every state to adopt automatic and same-day voter registration, voting rights for felons, no-excuse absentee balloting, mandatory early voting, and taxpayer funding for political campaigns. If that weren’t enough, it would violate free speech rights by forcibly disclosing nonprofits’ donors and imposing state legislatures with redistricting committees for every state—committees that are more accountable to special interests than the American public.
Don’t celebrate H.R. 1’s demise just yet. The worst of its provisions are also in its successor, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R. 4). The left isn’t done trying to radically transform the United States just yet, and it’ll use vote by mail to do it.
My colleagues and I have studied the left’s involvement in pushing mail-in voting in the 2020 election since the mischief began in November. We’ve uncovered a vast network of professional activists, wealthy foundations, Democratic mega-donors, and political operatives who conspired to flood America with mail-in ballots and turn the election against President Donald Trump.
Creating an Election Nightmare
In an all-mail election, the state sends ballots to every registered voter. Oregon has been conducting all-mail elections since the mid-1990s using a system of “ballot secrecy envelopes” that obscure the voter’s identity while allowing him to track the ballot’s status after returning it via mail or a polling station. Four more states have since adopted permanent all-mail elections, and 18 others allow local jurisdictions to hold all-mail elections. Currently, 16 states allow absentee voting with a valid excuse, and 34 states have no-excuse absentee voting.
Some locales have clearly figured it out. But hastily imposing their model on an unready nation created a comedy of errors almost everywhere else in 2020:
- More than 49,000 people received incorrect ballots in Franklin County, Ohio.
- A vote-by-mail drop box was set on fire in Los Angeles.
- A mayoral candidate was arrested for and charged with committing voter fraud with absentee ballots in Carrollton, Texas.
- And 100,000 New Yorkers received absentee ballots with incorrect names and address.
Mail-in ballots have significantly higher rejection rates than ballots cast in-person, with the highest being 4.5 percent rejected in 2008. That can be the difference between victory and defeat. Nearly 28,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in Florida’s 2016 election, where Trump’s margin of victory was 112,000 votes. Obama won Florida in 2012 by 74,000 votes, when 24,000 ballots were rejected. Mail-in ballot rejection rates averaged 1 percent nationwide in 2016 and 1.4 percent in 2018, perhaps 10 times higher than in-person rates, usually because they arrived too late to count or had mismatching signatures.
NPR reports that 550,000 mail-in ballots were disqualified in the 2020 primaries alone, much more than in 2016. Yet rejection rates averaged just 0.7 percent nationwide in the 2020 general election. Why were they suddenly so low? Either tens of millions of voters voting by mail (many for the first time) miraculously submitted flawless ballots, elections officials didn’t perform their due diligence, or the rejection rate was pushed down by an extraordinarily high number of “cured” ballots (fixing mistakes such as a forgotten signature), which is allowed in 19 states, including North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona. If the answer is either of the last two, vote-by-mail’s “success” in 2020 is hardly something to be celebrated.
Until recently, mail-in voting was just as controversial among liberals as conservatives, not least because it hurts turnout among Democratic constituencies. A 2016 ACLU study found that “younger and racial and ethnic minority voters casting VBM [vote-by-mail] ballots were at least twice as likely as older and white voters to have their VBM ballot rejected.” That same study concluded that voters under 30 made up 9.2 percent of all vote-by-mail voters, but accounted for almost 31 percent of rejected mail-in ballots. Liberal journalists railed against high mail-in ballot rejection rates for “disproportionately affect[ing] minorities” in 2018.
Then there’s the potential for fraud, which is why most European Union countries long ago banned “postal voting.” Former President Jimmy Carter’s own bipartisan commission in 2005 concluded that mail-in ballots presented the “largest source of potential voter fraud” of any voting system.
Democrats were deeply divided over the trustworthiness of mail-in ballots as recently as the 2008 election, when the Obama campaign voiced its “real deep concerns” about the security of mail-in ballots in the Florida Democratic primary, which Hillary Clinton won by some 294,000 votes. Obama questioning whether the system was “fraud-proof” on national television.
Simply put, it isn’t that mail-in ballots can’t work anywhere, just that they don’t work everywhere. That was 2020’s big experiment: entrusting the election to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the institution that routinely delivers you your neighbor’s mail. Let’s not forget that USPS warned last July that it might not be able to deliver ballots on time.
Yet the Washington Post ran a slew of op-eds calling for expanding voting by mail since COVID-19 quarantines began in early March 2020. An ACLU director declared in the New York Times that “voting by mail will save the 2020 election.” The Atlantic even conjectured that voting by mail could stop election “interference” by Republicans who might otherwise create a Trump dictatorship.
What changed? The coronavirus—and the itching need to defeat President Trump by whatever means necessary—ultimately overcame whatever concerns the left had over mail-in voting. Mail-in voting presented a powerful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to federalize elections and cement the left’s control over America. So they went all in on radically changing our republic—and it almost worked.
Making Vote-by-Mail Permanent
But some on the left had been pushing for vote by mail for years. Meet the National Vote at Home Coalition (NVHC) and its 501(c)(3) arm, National Vote At Home Institute, a pair of advocacy groups formed in 2017 to push all-mail elections nationwide. From the start, the effort was heavily supported by the National Association of Letter Carriers, the postal service union, which co-founded NVHC and hosted its kick-off event at the union’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The event was attended by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D.)—who was elected in the country’s first-ever all-mail federal election—and Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling. Keisling, who is now board chairman for NVHC, illustrated the future of voting and automatic voter registration:
Imagine a state where voters never have to show a photo ID; wait in voting lines; leave home or work early to get to their designated polling place; or worry about bad weather, traffic jams, finding parking or public transportation, or arranging childcare.
AVR’s [automatic voter registration] underlying policy premise is identical to vote-at home’s; if the government knows you’re a citizen, you become a registered voter [emphasis added].
The majority of the 501(c)(4) NVHC’s funding comes from the Letter Carriers union, other AFL-CIO unions, and liberal billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund Voice. The (c)(3) institute is bankrolled by various AFL-CIO unions, the Letter Carriers union, Arabella Advisors’ Hopewell Fund and New Venture Fund, and the foundation of liberal mega-donor Stephen Silberstein. Silberstein is a NVHC board member, National Popular Vote board member, and part of the Democracy Alliance.
Early on NVHC targeted state ballot initiatives, beginning with vote by mail in South Dakota in 2018 (it failed to make the ballot), Hawaii in 2019 (passed), and automatic voter registration in Michigan in 2018 (passed). Soon it would expand its scope to the federal level after hiring a new director, Amber McReynolds.
Amber McReynolds: The New Face of Soft Totalitarianism
McReynolds is a professional activist and leading figure in the left’s fight to transform American elections. She started registering voters in Iowa in the 2004 election with the New Voters Project, part of a vast network of activist groups called the Public Interest Network. The most famous of these groups are the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), which date back to the 1960s. A Colorado native, she was hired by the Denver Elections Commission in 2005, rising to deputy director in 2007 and finally elections director in 2011. She was given the city’s “rising star” award in 2012 by the Democratic mayor for overseeing the creation of Denver’s ballot-tracking and electronic petition-gathering software.
Critically, she pushed for and oversaw Colorado’s adoption of all-mail voting in 2013, reportedly downplaying the threat of illegal voting in her testimony before the state legislature by claiming ignorance of the term: “I’m not sure, to be honest, what is an illegal vote. . . . What does that mean?” By 2018, McReynolds was considered one of the state’s political up-and-comers and a likely candidate for challenging its Republican secretary of State, Wayne K. Williams.
She opted instead to join NVHC and take her plans for vote by mail nationwide. Under McReynolds, NVHC released its first national vote-by-mail proposal in mid-2020, “catapulting” this small organization into the center of the left’s scheme to use COVID-19 to transform the 2020 election.
McReynolds is often hailed as a nonpartisan, reform-minded moderate. She’s listed on the website of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers and was featured in Governing Magazine’s 2018 Top Public Officials of the Year.
But NVHC is closely connected to left-wing groups ranging from the ACLU to Rock the Vote. McReynolds herself also spoke at the Democracy Alliance’s Fall 2018 conference, the biggest Who’s Who of the elite left. This writer has interviewed a former elected city and county of Denver election commissioner who knew McReynolds during her years with the city (and who wishes to remain anonymous). In the commissioner’s words, McReynolds is “smart, power-driven,” and the “new face of soft totalitarianism.” Far from being nonpartisan, she couldn’t be further to the political left. One senior Trump administration appointee and elections expert told me that McReynolds is a “vote-by-mail fanatic” whose meteoric rise perfectly coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic.
That became obvious after Time released its infamous article “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election.” At the heart of that “conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes” was Michael Podhorzer, a senior AFL-CIO advisor and Democratic operative who organized a legion of activist groups and big foundations to use COVID-19 “relief funds” to pump up voter registration, push mail-in voting, and supplement mail ballots with private dropboxes to help Joe Biden win the 2020 election.
McReynolds and NVHC led the conspiracy’s mail-in voting crusade, supplying secretaries of state with drop box locations and encouraging mail-in ballots in 37 states and the District of Columbia. NVHC even published a 60-page report pushing DeKalb County, Georgia—an Atlanta suburb that received $4 million in “Zuck Bucks” and gave Biden 300,000 votes—to “create a modern, lean vote-by-mail program.” California also hired McReynolds to consult on expanding its vote-by-mail plans in May 2020.
While Time tried to spin the cabal as “bipartisan,” in reality it was as left-wing—and partisan—as could be.
In March, Wisconsin journalists revealed that a NVHC staffer and Democratic operative, Michael Spitzer-Rubinstein, practically ran Green Bay’s election as the city’s “de facto elections administrator,” with access to its absentee ballots days before the election.
Spitzer-Rubinstein had access to four of the five keys to the ballroom where early ballots were stored and counted, and he even asked the city clerk to “cure” problematic absentee ballots. Green Bay “went rogue” under NVHC, in the words of the Brown County clerk. Green Bay also received $1.1 million, Wisconsin’s third-largest grant, from the Mark Zuckerberg–funded Center for Technology and Civic Life.
Where else did NVHC taint local elections in 2020? Does it plan to have representatives in the Spitzer-Rubinstein mold in every major elections office in 2024? Short of a government inquiry, we may never know.
For her services McReynolds, President Biden nominated her to the U.S. Postal Service where she was touted as an “independent,” not a Democrat, and for good reason: By law the USPS governing board may have no more than five members from the same political party. Confirming her as an independent frees up President Biden to appoint another Democrat and grants her vast power as the deciding vote on future mail-in voting and election integrity decisions.
And that’s after McReynolds “covered up her connections to radical left-wing groups [by] scrubbing affiliations from her own organization’s website,” according to the conservative American Accountability Foundation.
As if to prove their point, since her confirmation McReynolds has signed an open letter critical of Arizona’s ongoing 2020 election audit alongside 19 other liberal groups and individuals. She has also attacked Republican “disinformation” as the “biggest election security issue we face” and called for federalizing elections to stop it: “We need to think about some federal standards because it’s easy for bad actors to spread the wrong information because the rules vary so much by state.”
But switching America to mail-in voting requires a serious change in infrastructure. For that, the left needed the NVHC to ensure that the coming flood of mail-in ballots would defeat Trump. They needed the support of Big Philanthropy.
Mark Zuckerberg: Laying the Groundwork for Vote by Mail
In a free and fair election, ballots are traceable from the time they’re filled out until they’re counted. Drop boxes threaten that chain by bypassing the Postal Service altogether and entrusting absentee ballots with a private third party. They also encourage ballot harvesting by partisan interests and raise the risk of fraudsters using private collection bins to return illegal ballots. Chain of custody is still missing for 400,000 absentee ballots delivered via drop box in Georgia alone.
To pay for so many drop boxes, the activists turned to Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. In fall 2020, he funneled $350 million into a small Chicago nonprofit, the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL), which repackaged the funds as COVID-19 “relief” grants to thousands of local elections offices that would supposedly go underfunded in the election—despite receiving $400 million from the federal government through the CARES Act.
To date, my colleagues and I have traced $112 million in “Zuck bucks” flowing to nine critical states: Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada.
CTCL has claimed that its funds were distributed on a nonpartisan basis. In reality, “Zuck bucks” favored big, Democratic cities that pumped out enough votes for Biden to clinch contested states. In Pennsylvania, for instance, CTCL grants to counties Biden won averaged $3.11 per capita and just $0.57 in counties Trump won. In Arizona, CRCL grants provided a staggering $5.83 per capita in counties Biden won versus $1.29 in counties Trump won.
In June, Todd Shepherd, chief investigative reporter for the Pennsylvania Broad & Liberty, published an email chain revealing early contact between CTCL, a councilwoman in Delaware County (a Philadelphia suburb), and a Democratic get-out-the-vote strategist. Shepherd has also discovered evidence that Democratic counties neighboring Philly were given early invitations to apply for multi-million-dollar CTCL grants, well before the rest of the right-leaning state.
CTCL’s funds were supposed to aid in voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet a recent letter from House Republicans points out that less than 1 percent of its funds went to personal protective equipment (PPE). What CTCL’s “Zuck bucks” did pay for was the infrastructure required to unleash an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots.
Public records requests reveal that nearly $6.5 million of Philadelphia’s $10 million grant funded “mail-in and absentee” processing equipment, 15 “secure dropboxes” scattered around the city, and postage (presumably for mail-in ballots). A $1.4 million grant to Fairfax County, Virginia—which contains close to a quarter of the state’s population and 18 percent of all Biden’s statewide votes—also paid for vote-by-mail equipment, temporary staffing, and “voting materials other than in English.” Alarmingly, the county’s CTCL-provided spending report also leaves room for “non-partisan voter education”—what does that entail and where was it used?
In Wisconsin, a former elections clerk told reporter John Solomon that CTCL grants to Green Bay caused the city to effectively “take over” county election functions. CTCL itself worked “primarily with our five major Democratic base cities,” breaking processes across the key battleground state. “As we got closer to the November election,” she said, “we found out that this outside group had come in and was basically trying to redo our forms and documents that we use statewide. And these people were from out of state and had no business doing that.”
In short, Big Philanthropy had its way with the 2020 election, to the left’s delight. National Public Radio even credits “private money from Facebook’s CEO” with “sav[ing] the 2020 election.” Faced with a private takeover of our elections, the same set of radicals who once cried “eat the rich” and “abolish billionaires” simply yawned. Yet the greatest irony is that, for all the left’s newfound love of mail-in voting, its sudden emphasis on drop boxes is a vote of no confidence in the Postal Service’s ability to competently manage so many mail-in ballots.
CTCL’s meddling prompted dozens of states to ban private funding of elections, but the damage is done. Racine, Wisconsin, recently purchased a $250,000 “mobile voting precinct” using CTCL funds. How much money will Zuckerberg or others like him spend influencing the 2024 election?
Page Gardner: Soliciting Absentee Ballots
Voters in many states were assailed with partially pre-filled absentee ballot requests in the months leading up to Election Day. The requests came from a pair of shadowy nonprofits: the Center for Voter Information (CVI) and the Voter Participation Center (VPC), “sister” groups formed in 2003 by former Bill Clinton presidential campaign staffer and operative Page Gardner.
Gardner’s groups take advantage of IRS rules allowing nonprofits to engage in nonpartisan voter registration to target the “New American Majority,” which they define as “young people, people of color and unmarried women”—a group that gave more than 60 percent of its votes for Biden in 2020.
The nonprofits are hardly “nonpartisan”—CVI, the network’s 501(c)(4), spent $583,000 directly aiding Biden—but it’s their support for voting by mail that should concern conservatives. Unlike the Right, the left is all in on funding groups that do nothing more than voter registration.
Gardner’s groups claim they registered more than 1.5 million new voters and generated 4.8 million vote-by-mail applications in 2020 alone.
Many of these absentee ballot applications were faulty, listing the wrong jurisdictions. In Virginia, mailing applications mislabeled for the City of Fairfax were sent to residents of neighboring Fairfax County. But for all the ballots faults, they were clearly sent for one purpose: flood key states with tens of millions of mail-in ballots.
One Virginia polling place worker who wishes to remain anonymous sent me a copy of an envelope (archived here) mailed to him by CVI prior to the election containing an absentee ballot request, but the return address (3125 W. Cary St. #305, Richmond, VA) is a UPS store, not CVI’s office in Washington, D.C. He has found similar envelopes in eight other states—Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Missouri—with return addresses for UPS stores.
What happened to the absentee ballot requests that bounced back to CVI’s UPS boxes? Could they have been used to generate a universe of registered but nonresponsive voters? Given the multitude of reports from across the country of voters who tried to vote on Election Day and were told that they couldn’t cast a ballot because they had already voted, it raises serious questions about tax-exempt nonprofits exploiting IRS rules to swing elections for their political allies.
The Future of Elections Isn’t So Grim
There’s little doubt that left-wing operatives would love to make every future election mimic 2020. But it doesn’t have to end that way.
Despite high hopes among many Democrats, new studies show that mail-in ballots had a smaller than expected effect on turnout and did not dramatically help the Democratic Party. What they did change was how Americans voted—opening the door to the kind of ballot harvesting and fraud that characterize countries like Venezuela.
The left’s dependence on so many CTCL-funded drop boxes also suggests that vote by mail won’t plague the future in the 15-plus states (and counting) that have already banned private funding of elections, and likely others. Without drop boxes, the effectiveness of mail-in ballots will entirely depend on the U.S. Postal Service—the 18th century institution that’s been utterly outcompeted by private industry and may be privatized by a future Republican administration. With its present difficulties, it’s a safe bet that running elections will never be USPS’s top priority. As one elections expert recently told me, “If you want to screw up voter I.D., put the DMV in charge of it. If you want to screw up voting, put the Postal Service in charge of it.”
Is the left prepared to hang its future on that? In an age of reliable two-day delivery, will Americans ever support elections that take 5–7 days to transit their ballots each way and upwards of 15 days to certify? The more America moves forward, the more America’s left looks backward.
Hayden Ludwig is a senior investigative researcher for the Capital Research Center.
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