Newsletter: The battle over the GOP ballot boxes

A stack of vote-by-mail ballots sit in a box
A record number of Californians have turned in ballots, with election day still three weeks away.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Oct. 13, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

A record number of Californians have already turned in ballots with election day still three weeks away, and ballot drop boxes became a major point of contention Monday.

Like many a 2020 fracas, this one snowballed with a since-removed tweet.

On Thursday, an Orange County regional GOP field organizer tweeted that he was doing his part, voting early and proudly casting his ballot for a local congressional candidate. The tweet included a photo of the field organizer posing with an “official” ballot drop box and urged others to direct-message him for “convenient locations to drop your ballot off at!”


What, you might wonder, could possibly be the issue here? The civically inclined young man in the photo was even wearing a mask as he made a thumbs-up gesture next to the ballot collection box.

Well, there are more than a hundred official ballot drop boxes in Orange County. But this wasn’t an official collection box. It was a misleadingly marked private ballot collection container, of the sort that had popped up in several California communities in an effort helmed by the California Republican Party.

A variety of other private collection boxes prompted complaints on social media over the weekend, including a similar box outside a Castaic church shown in a Facebook post. A spokesman for the California Republican Party told my colleagues that the Orange County box was one of several purchased by party officials, but he would not specify how many had been deployed or in what locations. In Fresno, unauthorized ballot collection boxes sponsored by the Fresno County Republican Party appeared at multiple gun shops, firing ranges, the local GOP headquarters and a gas station.

California’s attorney general and chief elections officer on Monday decried the faux-official ballot drop boxes as illegal and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican Party officials demanding that they immediately stop using the containers.

[Read the story: “California elections officials order GOP to immediately remove unofficial ballot boxes” in the Los Angeles Times]

As my colleagues John Myers and Stephanie Lai reported, the issue “sparked angry exchanges between candidates and leaders of both major political parties and a raft of accusations — none offered with any evidence — including an intent to tamper with votes and discrimination against informal ballot collections led by church congregations.”


On Monday, the California GOP doubled down. Not only do they not plan to remove the boxes, but they maintain that they have done nothing wrong.

Their argument revolves around a 2016 state law that removed limitations on who could turn in a ballot for a voter. Assembly Bill 1921, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, removed language in the state election code that restricted to close family members those who could assist a voter in turning in a vote-by-mail ballot.

The law was passed as part of a package of reforms intended to raise voter turnout, but the fact that it allows campaign workers and volunteers to collect vote-by-mail ballots while canvassing has been contentious in the past. As my colleagues report, Republicans have been particularly critical of the loosened process, mocking it as “ballot harvesting” and unsuccessfully suing to block its use during a recent special election.

During an online event with reporters on Monday afternoon, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla were unequivocal in their assertion that the unsanctioned GOP drop boxes are illegal. (For reference, Becerra’s role as AG makes him the top lawyer and law enforcement official in the state, and the secretary of state’s office oversees all federal and state elections within California.)

“There are some important differences that should matter from an election security perspective,” Padilla said, in reference to why the ballot-collection law wouldn’t cover unsanctioned ballot boxes. He underscored the fact that official county drop boxes are subject to strict security requirements, as well as protocols dictating the frequency with which ballots are retrieved and returned to county election officials.

Padilla also said that misrepresenting unsanctioned ballot collection boxes as official ones “misleads voters and erodes the public trust.”

According to the Fresno Bee, the Fresno County Republican Party has agreed to remove its unsanctioned drop boxes. But as of Monday afternoon, the state GOP had yet to back down.

Note: Every county in California offers voters official locations to return completed ballots, using heavy-duty and tightly locked drop boxes that must meet a variety of state-specific regulations. You can search for your nearest official drop box on the Secretary of State’s website.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

PG&E warns of power outages as high winds and extreme heat roll into Northern California. Fierce Diablo winds are expected to kick up in Northern California this week, bringing an increased fire risk to the burn-scarred region and prompting Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to prepare for potential power shutoffs in parts of 43 counties.

Two dangerous wind events are expected this week — the first starting Wednesday afternoon or evening and stretching into Thursday morning, and the second developing Thursday evening and running through Friday morning, forecasters said. Los Angeles Times

The number of Californians hospitalized with COVID-19 hit its lowest level in six months: While the spread of the coronavirus accelerates in much of the nation, California is enjoying a moment of relief, as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have dropped to the lowest levels in months. Los Angeles Times

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


At least 76 people were arrested Sunday night in downtown Los Angeles after the Lakers’ NBA championship win, marking the latest confrontation between LAPD officers and a large street crowd in a year already shaped by mass protests. Los Angeles Times

How to become an L.A. County poll worker for the 2020 election: Local polling places are in particular need of tech-savvy people to help voters navigate balloting technology and bilingual people to meet the needs of a diverse electorate. Los Angeles Times

Is this how theater gets saved? A magic show at the Geffen Stayhouse (née Geffen Playhouse) has mined virtual box-office gold. Los Angeles Times

Helder Guimarães in the Geffen Stayhouse production of "The Present," directed by Frank Marshall.
(The Geffen Playhouse)

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Healthcare dominated the first day of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, as Democrats framed her as a lethal threat to the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights and warned that even conducting the hearing during the pandemic was reckless. Los Angeles Times

President Trump burst back onto the campaign trail Monday night, delivering an energetic and combative hourlong speech in central Florida meant to demonstrate his recovery from COVID-19 and resuscitate his faltering reelection campaign. Los Angeles Times


Tree branches hitting power lines may have sparked the Bobcat fire, according to a letter Southern California Edison sent to regulators on Monday. Los Angeles Times


Only in 2020: Chico State will be housing up to 200 firefighters in on-campus housing that was recently closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Orion

Two Stanford professors won the Nobel Prize in economics for their work on auction theory. Los Angeles Times

“There’s a tiki bar in Solvang that feels exactly like Trader Sam’s in Disneyland.” The bar proprietor was a longtime Disneyland employee. SF Gate

A poem to start your Tuesday: “At North Farm” by John Ashbery. UPenn Writing Center

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Los Angeles: sunny, 91. San Diego: sunny, 85. San Francisco: partly sunny, 73. San Jose: partly sunny, 84. Fresno: sunny, 87. Sacramento: sunny, 89. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Lisa Ireland:

The love of my life passed away in September. As Chicago transplants, we passionately explored the sexy nights of California together. Countless beautiful images play for me on a loop: Hands interlocked and eyes sparkling in dimly lit booths at Dan Tana’s, Musso & Frank Grill, the Polo Lounge. Succulent bites of crab pasta at Madeo, fried chicken at the Ivy, laughing like teenagers at the Apple Pan. Crisp January days at the Santa Anita racetrack. Barefoot on Montecito’s Butterfly Beach as our dogs danced with seagulls. San Francisco via PCH with the wind at our cheeks as fireworks exploded July Fourth. Traversing Lake Tahoe as snowflakes fell on the coniferous forest.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.