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California officials say GOP’s ballot boxes are illegal. Republicans may expand the practice

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, left, and Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley hold a news conference
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, left, and Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley hold a news conference on Orange County’s comprehensive plans to safeguard the election and provide transparency in Santa Ana.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

For years, Republicans across the country have decried the use of so-called “ballot harvesting,” arguing that laws that allow a third party to collect voters’ completed ballots serve as a breeding ground for election fraud. In California, the state’s Republican Party has taken Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials to court over the practice.

Now, California’s GOP is defending its use of the very ballot collection law it once sued over.

In recent weeks, gray metal containers labeled as ballot drop boxes have been placed at various locations — including gun shops, shooting ranges, churches and Republican Party offices — in several California counties.

California Republican Party officials have acknowledged responsibility for the boxes and have rejected allegations of wrongdoing, in defiance of what the state’s top election official and attorney general say is an illegal practice.

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Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Monday sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican Party officials demanding that they immediately stop using the private ballot collection containers marked as “official” drop boxes.

California’s attorney general and secretary of state called such ballot drop boxes illegal and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican Party officials.

Republicans counter that they are applying 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.

At the center of the battle are questions of whether it is legal to collect ballots through third party boxes and also what constitutes an “official” ballot drop box. California law says a mail voter may designate another person to return their ballot.

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A view of an official Orange County Registrar of Voters ballot Drop Box for the 2020 Presidential General Election.
A view of an official Orange County Registrar of Voters ballot Drop Box for the 2020 Presidential General Election at Carl Thornton Park in Santa Ana.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The dispute marks the latest escalation of a national debate between Democrats and the GOP over allegations of voter suppression and voter fraud in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, a battle that many political analysts fear is undermining public confidence in the election’s integrity.

Becerra and Padilla, who has called the ballot boxes “fake” and misleading, have demanded that GOP officials provide by Thursday a list of all voters whose ballots have been collected using the boxes, to ensure that the documents were collected with permission. Both are “prepared to take action to enforce state law, should it be necessary,” according to the cease-and-desist letter.

“State law is absolutely clear: These unofficial, unauthorized ballot drop boxes violate state law,” Padilla said in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday. “We’ve put the parties on notice to cease and desist this activity. And if they don’t do so in short order, we’ll entertain all legal options to address it.”

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A spokesman for Becerra’s office said that they have not yet received a formal response to their letter. The California Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment from The Times. A party spokesman told the Associated Press that they would stop labeling their ballot boxes “official” to avoid confusion and said that they may expand their use.

Republican Party officials also have declined to provide state officials with a complete listing of the number of drop boxes and their locations.

President Trump jumped into the fray Tuesday evening by retweeting a Times story. “You mean only Democrats are allowed to do this? But haven’t the Dems been doing this for years?” the president wrote. “See you in court. Fight hard Republicans!”

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The existence of the boxes was disclosed when a Newport Beach Republican official posted a photo of himself on Twitter on Thursday 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, said Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley.

Similar containers have appeared in several communities across the state, from gun shops in Fresno to churches in Castaic and Simi Valley.

A list of locations sponsored by the Fresno County Republican Party on its website showed a dozen ballot drop-off locations not authorized by elections officials. The list has since been removed.

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The state law in question, amended in 2016 and again in 2018, replaced a previous rule that limited 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.”

The law, experts say, explicitly states that any individual can return a ballot to an official designated drop box. But they draw a distinction between a voter who has willingly given their ballot to another person for delivery and a voter who turned their ballot into a drop box they did not know was unofficial.

According to experts, the use of third-party ballot collection boxes is not illegal, but the false designation of an “official” drop-off box is because the boxes are not sanctioned by election officials.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who wrote the law and its amendment in 2018, said that the intent of the two bills was to open up access for voters to participate in elections.

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The wording in the amendments doesn’t give the state GOP the legal standing to use unofficial boxes, said Gonzalez, a Democrat whose district encompasses southern San Diego County.

“The mental hoops you need to jump through to assume that a person opening the box is the designated person is beyond me,” Gonzalez said. “It is clear that you can designate a person, but not a lock box.”

“I just think it’s unfortunate after crying foul for years about voter fraud, the Republican Party has taken it in their own hands and committed voter fraud,” Gonzalez added.

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Raúl Macías, counsel at the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that the GOP’s claim that “this is just like ballot collection assistance is ridiculous on its face.”

“California ballot collection law allows voters to entrust a specific person to return ballots on their behalf,” he said. “This entails political operatives defrauding voters into thinking they’re submitting ballots to election officials rather than to the GOP.”

Some of the GOP ballot boxes, Macías added, are labeled as official.

“The voters don’t know who they are entrusting their ballot to,” he said. “It sounds to me like the GOP officials are likely committing a felony by likely impersonating election officials.”

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Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, agreed that state Republicans were misleading voters. A voter cannot “designate” someone to be a third party turning in their ballot if the voter is unaware that they dropped off their ballot at an unofficial box.

Scholars argue that the back-and-forth could weaken already waning efficacy in the electoral system in a year marked by a pandemic, fears about mail delays and cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service and lawsuits filed by Republicans — including the Trump campaign — in an effort to restrict ballot access or prevent expansions of the franchise.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania threw out a lawsuit filed by President Trump’s campaign over the state’s poll-watching law and mail-in ballots.

Republicans say they are aiming to fight the potential for fraud; Democrats argue the GOP is trying to disenfranchise voters.

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“One of the potential, real problems here is that voters right now are already hearing these conspiracy theories around the postmaster general and boxes in Oregon being moved off the street. It’s undercutting confidence in USPS, and so people are turning to drop boxes,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of the data firm Political Data Inc. “But this could end up undermining confidence in drop boxes.”

Macías, of the Brennan Center for Justice, said that it would be one thing for a voter to designate a gun store owner as a person to return a ballot on their behalf, rather than a box in front of the store.

“California has comprehensive regulations providing for security of official drop boxes,” he said. “Those include providing for their sturdy construction, the ability to withstand attempts at removing those drop boxes. Their slots are required to be narrow enough to prevent tampering, and ballots have to be collected regularly from those drop boxes by two election official employees.”

Macías said he believes that the GOP wants to bring attention to their opposition of the state law “by trolling election officials.”

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“These tactics fit a familiar pattern of attempting to suppress voting,” he said. “Undermining confidence, creating confusion, spreading disinformation — these are forms of voter suppression. It lays a groundwork to later claim you can’t trust the voter results.”


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