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California GOP pushes back against state election officials on unofficial ballot boxes

Voters place their ballots in an official ballot drop box.
Voters place their ballots inside an official ballot drop box at Carl Thornton Park in Santa Ana.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

California Republican Party officials on Wednesday doubled down on their efforts to use private ballot boxes to collect votes, arguing that the practice was within the bounds of state election law and vowing that they will continue to use the unofficial containers.

In a telephone conference Wednesday afternoon, GOP officials said that they were participating in ballot collection in order to be competitive, using the “same rules and laws” that Democrats use.

“It’s pretty clear that Democrats only care about ballot harvesting when someone else is doing it,” California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said. “The Democrats are the ones that voted for this legislation.”

Republicans say they are operating under a 2016 state law that allows an unlimited number of completed ballots to be collected by an individual or political parties and campaigns.

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As the GOP digs in, state officials continued to argue that the unauthorized boxes were misleading and illegal, and said they are ready to exercise any available legal options to protect the integrity of Californians’ votes.

A five-page memorandum sent to county election offices from Jana Lean, chief of the secretary of state’s enforcement division, said the receptacles were not consistent with ballot collection rules.

With election day over two weeks away, more than 1 million Californians have returned mail-in ballots, dwarfing the number submitted at this point in 2016.

“When it comes to handling ballots, obey the law — not politicians. The last person who should be providing legal advice is the guy who has lost to California in court over and over,” California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra tweeted Tuesday evening, referring to one of two tweets from President Trump weighing in to support the ballot boxes.

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The private bins — labeled as ballot drop boxes and placed at various locations, including gun shops, shooting ranges, churches and Republican Party offices — have raised questions about the chain of custody of the ballots, as well as concerns over the ability to enforce the integrity of elections. State election officials say there is a distinction between designating a third party to deliver a ballot for a voter and placing a ballot into an unofficial box.

The state GOP said the boxes are spread across at least three counties, but officials did not specify how many there were throughout the state. Republican officials also declined to say how many ballots so far had been collected from the boxes. A party spokesman told The Times that they are “looking at potentially expanding” their ballot collecting program.

“We are going to be ballot-harvesting throughout our entire state,” Millan Patterson told reporters. “We did it in the primary, pre-pandemic, and we will continue to ballot harvest.”

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Republicans filed their response to the secretary of state’s office later Wednesday. In it, they asserted that none of their boxes are left unattended at any Republican Party office or headquarters while voters are permitted to deposit their ballots.

They also said that they did not place any of their containers outdoors or in “any other nonsecure location where the general public can see or use the box.”

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, however, tweeted Wednesday afternoon: “OFFICIAL BALLOT DROP BOXES are a good alternative to mailing your ballot. But don’t be fooled by unauthorized, unofficial boxes.”

The dispute comes amid heightened partisan tensions between Democrats and Republicans over allegations of voter suppression and voter fraud in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. This week, for example, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas can limit absentee ballot drop-off spots to only one per county.

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California’s ballot collection law is widely regarded as the most accommodating in the nation. But California is not the only state with no limit on how many ballots can be gathered by an individual or group.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 26 states allow voters to designate someone else to return their ballot for them, but only 12 have specific limits on the number of ballots that any individual can collect and return on behalf of other voters.

Twenty days out from the election, more than 1 million Californians have returned their mail-in ballots, according to the state, an amount that dwarfs the number submitted at this point four years ago. It is the most ballots collected by mail at this point in any California election. Nearly half of the mail-in ballots come from Los Angeles County, where about 435,000 voters have sent in their ballots, according to the L.A. County registrar-recorder’s office.

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State law says that a “vote by mail ballot drop box” should be a “secure receptacle established by a county or city and county elections official whereby a voted vote by mail ballot may be returned to the elections official from whom it was obtained.”

The official ballot envelope requires the name and signature of the person who has been authorized to return it on the voter’s behalf. While a ballot will be counted even if the person returning it on the voter’s behalf isn’t identified, local election officials could judge that the ballot is irregular and decide to investigate it. Those concerns would be less likely to arise if the ballot was placed in an official, county-provided drop box.

The California Republican Party said it began to use the boxes — placed in counties and districts with important “target” tightly contested races on the ballot — in an effort to enfranchise GOP voters.

Several close races are in Orange, Ventura and Fresno counties. J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of an election newsletter at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said a congressional race in the Central Valley is one of 16 “toss-up” districts the university is tracking in the U.S.

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The 21st Congressional District is a rare swing district in the San Joaquin Valley, he said. Rep. TJ Cox, a Democrat, won the election in 2018, and voter registration there now favors Democrats by almost 17 percentage points, Coleman said. But Cox’s opponent, David Valadao, could win back the seat he lost in 2018, he said.

The state GOP also has an eye on races in Orange County, where the the private ballot boxes first were noticed. That county’s election in the 48th District — between Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat, and Republican Michelle Steel — will prove a tough race, said Michael Moodian, a professor at Chapman University who conducts annual reports on county politics.

Political analysts also consider a race in the 25th District, which includes the Antelope Valley, Santa Clarita and Simi Valley, to be competitive. An unofficial ballot box was found outside a Catholic church in that area.

California’s law, amended in 2018, replaced a 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.

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Republicans, in particular, in the past have criticized the loosened process by mocking it as “ballot harvesting.”

“We do not like this. We do not want this. We’d like to see it done away with,” party spokesman Hector Barajas told The Times, referring to the 2016 and 2018 laws. “We’re getting involved in the ballot process because it is a form of necessity now to run campaigns.”

But political analysts contend that the use of third-party collection boxes will open up legal issues related to ensuring a ballot isn’t tampered with.

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When voters drop off ballots at an unofficial box, they have entrusted the third party to return their ballots, said Herbert Gooch, a political science professor emeritus at California Lutheran University. The third party is then legally obligated to submit the ballots, and the obligation is not fulfilled until an election official is in possession of the ballots, he said.

California’s election rules don’t specifically offer instructions for private groups, including political parties, when it comes to gathering ballots from voters. The law does, however, require those who collect a voter’s ballot to deliver it to a county election office within three days or, in the final hours of the campaign season, by the close of the polls on election day.

The only references to drop boxes in state law are those used by county election officials. In 2017, the secretary of state’s office issued detailed guidelines for those containers, including a requirement that the secure boxes have only a slot — not a door that can be opened — to ensure no one can reach inside to remove ballots.

“The problem becomes that we don’t have the resources to trace who holds each ballot, and the further we get from someone personally returning their own ballot the more concerns of election integrity crop up,” Gooch said. “Even though tracking exists, the voter and elections officials have few checks in place to ensure a ballot was handled properly.”

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The controversy came to light this week after gray metal containers were found in several counties.

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.

Becerra and 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.

During the telephone conference, the California GOP’s attorney said an “overzealous volunteer” was to blame for putting the word “official” on some of the party’s private drop boxes. Officials said that language was removed from the containers over the weekend.

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“We’re not attempting to describe these as official boxes,” attorney Thomas Hiltachk said. “They’re simply just a vehicle for us to take ballots and secure them until we can deliver them to election officials.”

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona), deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, decried California Democrats’ criticism of the private ballot boxes, arguing they are “suppressing churchgoers’ voting rights.”

“Ballot harvesting is legal in the state of California, Democrats legalized it, and it is clear with these ballot boxes Republicans are following the laws Democrats put in place,” Calvert said. “In the face of voter suppression attempts by California Democrats, Republicans have and will continue to be steadfast in defending Californians’ voting rights.”

A list of locations sponsored by the Fresno County Republican Party on its website showed a dozen ballot drop-off locations not authorized by election officials. The list has since been removed. The party has also removed its unofficial boxes in the county, according to media reports.

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Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.


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