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Ballot box fire in Baldwin Park may be arson, officials say

Baldwin Park resident John Rios examines the ballot box that was burned.
Baldwin Park resident John Rios, who dropped off his ballot at the local library drop box recently, stopped by to examine the box that was on fire Sunday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

George Silva was out for a leisurely bike ride when he first spotted the plume of smoke. It was just after 8 p.m. Sunday, and a ballot box near Ramona and Baldwin Park boulevards was ablaze.

Silva, who lives in the Baldwin Park neighborhood and owns a business nearby, whipped out his phone and started broadcasting live on Facebook while Los Angeles County firefighters worked to extinguish the flames.

“Who would do this?” Silva can be heard saying during the filming (Warning: Video contains profanity). “Who would have an agenda to screw up an election? Their votes are gone. ... All those voices aren’t going to get heard.”

As he filmed, firefighters did everything they could to access the flames inside the tightly sealed metal box, including snaking a hose through the drop slot and, later, cutting the whole thing open with a power saw.

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Once open, numerous official election ballots — some charred beyond recognition — could be seen smoldering inside.

“Straight haters,” Silva said. “Straight hate.”

On Sunday night, officers with the Baldwin Park Police Department took custody of the seared, soaked ballots, which were set to be transferred to the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office on Monday to see what could be salvaged.

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It was not immediately clear how the fire began, but Los Angeles County Fire Department spokeswoman Leslie Lua said arson is being investigated as a possible cause. If confirmed, she said, it would be the first instance of ballot box arson in the county.

In an already contentious election season, officials are hoping it will also be the last.

“It angers me,” Baldwin Park Mayor Manuel Lozano said Monday. “You’re literally denying someone’s constitutional right to vote, and that’s unacceptable.”

Lozano said as many as 100 ballots may have been in the box at the time of its ignition. He noted that the county — not the city — selected the ballot box locations and decried the decision to place the box in an area that was “not particularly well-lit” where someone with bad intentions might slip under the radar. The box is outside the Baldwin Park Library.

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And though he hopes the fire won’t make people in his community lose faith in the electoral system, Lozano said he already has heard from several residents who said they’re planning now to hold onto their ballots until election day, or wait until they can vote in person.

“This is supposed to be secure. It’s supposed to be safe,” Lozano said. “Residents should be able to use [the ballot boxes] and feel confident that their vote will make its way up to the voter registrar’s office. Now that it’s been compromised, you’re going to have second thoughts.”

The fire comes amid record-breaking voter turnout in California: More than 3.7 million ballots have already been cast in the state, far exceeding mail-in ballot numbers from the same point in previous state elections. Nearly 1 million of those ballots have been from L.A. County.

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But the turnout is not without controversy. The California Republican Party has claimed responsibility for several unofficial ballot boxes that have popped up across the state in recent weeks. Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla called the boxes fake and misleading, but the GOP has defied cease-and-desist orders, claiming the unofficial boxes are legal under a 2016 state law that allows third parties to collect ballots on voters’ behalf.

But the burning of the Baldwin Park ballot box goes far beyond slippery legal loopholes. Calling the blaze “an attack on our democracy,” L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn said she is now requesting that all ballot boxes be emptied nightly through election day, which is just over two weeks away. Ballot boxes were previously emptied only every 72 hours.

“Whoever did this this must be found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Hahn said.

California officials say the state Republican Party has agreed to stop deploying unauthorized ballot boxes. The group says it has made no concessions.

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In response to the fire, the county registrar’s office has requested a local law enforcement investigation and reported the incident to the FBI and the attorney general. Any available security footage from nearby buildings will be used to help catch the perpetrators.

County Clerk Dean C. Logan of the registrar’s office said tampering with drop boxes and ballots is a serious criminal offense.

“We will vigorously seek the prosecution of individuals who engage in such behavior,” Logan said.

Ricardo Santiago, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said consequences for arson convictions can vary, but representatives for Hahn’s office pointed out that the ballot boxes themselves come with language about tampering with their contents: Election Code 18500 says voter fraud is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

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Voters who suspect their ballot may have been damaged in the Baldwin Park blaze are being encouraged to check the county’s official ballot tracker for status updates or call (562) 503-2445 for assistance. The damaged drop box location has been closed indefinitely.

Monday also marked California’s deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 3 election. More than 400 secure drop boxes have been placed around the county since Oct. 5 for voters who wish to return their completed ballots early. In-person voting begins Oct. 24 at more than 760 vote centers in Los Angeles County, and mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 to be counted.

Reached by phone Monday morning, Silva, who livestreamed the blaze, said the smoke coming out of the ballot box Sunday evening “looked like a chimney.”

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He had not yet cast his vote, he said.

City News Service contributed to this report.


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