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California elections officials order GOP to immediately remove unofficial ballot boxes

California election officials say that only county officials have the authority to designate collection locations.
(Nick Agro / Los Angeles Times)
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California’s attorney general and chief elections officer on Monday sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican Party officials demanding that they immediately stop using private ballot collection containers marked as “official” drop boxes, saying that the do-it-yourself containers that have appeared in several communities across the state are illegal.

Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla also demanded that GOP officials provide by Thursday a list of all voters whose ballots have been collected using the boxes to ensure the documents were collected with permission.

“Let me be clear, unofficial, unauthorized ballot drop boxes are not permitted by state law,” Padilla said in an online event with reporters. “Political parties and campaigns can engage in get-out-the-vote efforts, but they cannot violate state law.”

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A spokesman for the California Republican Party rejected the allegation of wrongdoing, insisting the practice is allowed under a 2016 state law that allows a voter to designate any person to collect a completed ballot and return it to election officials, a polling place or vote center, or a secure vote-by-mail drop box.

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.

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Questions were first raised over the weekend, when a Newport Beach Republican official posted a photo of himself on Twitter posing next to a metal delivery box, the size of an office filing cabinet, marked “official ballot drop off box.” The container was not, however, provided or overseen by Orange County elections officials.

"[Direct message] me for convenient locations to drop your ballot off,” wrote Jordan Tygh, a regional field director for the California Republican Party.

Twitter has since taken down Tygh’s posting, replacing it with a note saying the message violated the company’s rules.

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Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said it is unclear how many similar boxes are being used or their locations. “Voters who want to return their ballot at a drop box should only use official county drop boxes,” he said. “Official ballot drop boxes are clearly recognizable, designed to meet state standards for security, and bear the official Orange County elections logo.”

A variety of other private collection boxes prompted complaints on social media over the weekend. A box similar to the one that Tygh posed with was reported outside of a church in Castaic, and another was found outside of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Simi Valley labeled “Ballot Drop Box.” Church officials declined to comment.

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Photos from Fresno depicted a sign promising a “secure ballot drop off location” that was not one provided by the county’s elections office. And late last week, a list of locations sponsored by the Fresno County Republican Party showed a dozen ballot drop-off locations not authorized by elections officials, including gun shops and firing ranges.

Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party, said the Orange County box was one of several purchased by party officials. But he would not specify how many boxes had been deployed or where.

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Tygh, whose name appears on a list of supporters on the website of congressional candidate and Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, said he could not comment on his tweet because of an employment contract with the state GOP.

The Orange County District Attorney’s office is investigating the situation, said press information officer Kimberly Edds. “We’re still in our legal review, and we haven’t made a determination, but there are strict restrictions on what governs an official ballot box,” she said.

State elections officials on Sunday said the boxes are prohibited by California law. A five-page memorandum sent to county elections offices from Jana Lean, chief of the secretary of state’s enforcement division, said the receptacles were not consistent with ballot collection rules.

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“County elections officials alone have the authority to designate the location, hours of operation, and number of drop boxes in the county,” Lean wrote, “and have the responsibility for ensuring compliance with all applicable statutes and regulations that guarantee the security and chain of custody of vote-by-mail ballots deposited.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom lashed out at the GOP ballot collection effort on Twitter.

“Nothing reeks of desperation quite like the Republican Party organization these days — willing to lie, cheat, and threaten our democracy all for the sake of gaining power,” he wrote. “These unofficial drop boxes aren’t just misleading, they are illegal.”

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In an election in which more than 21 million registered voters have been mailed a ballot, the proper procedures for casting and submitting an absentee ballot have taken on new urgency, alongside an array of concerns about whether the U.S. Postal Service will deliver ballots on time to be counted. Many Californians unfamiliar with the process will also be casting a vote by mail for the first time.

Every county offers voters locations to return a completed ballot, using heavy-duty and tightly locked drop boxes that must meet a variety of state-specific regulations. Local elections officials mailed voters a list of these locations, along with the hours of operation for collection boxes inside businesses or other buildings, at the same time as sending out sample ballots and voter guides.

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The state law in question replaced a previous rule limiting ballot delivery to a family member or someone living in the same household and explicitly prohibited collection by political parties and campaigns. Republicans, in particular, have criticized the loosened process by mocking it as “ballot harvesting.” They unsuccessfully sued to block its use during the spring special election won by Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) and now argue the statute makes their use of the private collection boxes legal.

“In California, where you can have convicted felons and individuals with a criminal history go door to door and collect ballots from voters, Democrats are now upset because organizations, individuals and groups are offering an opportunity for their friends, family, and patrons to drop off their ballot with someone they know and trust,” Barajas, the party spokesman, said in a statement. “The Democrat anger is overblown when state law allows organizations, volunteers or campaign workers to collect completed ballots and drop them off at polling places or election offices.”

The official ballot envelope still requires the name and signature of the person who has been authorized to return it for the voter. While a ballot will be counted even if the person returning it isn’t identified, local elections officials could use that information to investigate any irregularities — concerns that would be less likely to arise if the ballot is placed in an official, county-provided drop box.

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