After ballot box fire, registrar is sorting through votes that can be salvaged
Ballots retrieved from a Baldwin Park drop box that was burned in what authorities say may have been arson have been transferred to the Los Angeles County registrar for sorting and review, officials said Tuesday.
County Clerk Dean C. Logan of the registrar’s office said more than 230 pieces of “material” were salvaged from the box, which was at one point soaked in water in an attempt to extinguish the flames.
“That doesn’t necessarily equate to 230 ballots,” Logan said, “although it could be close to that.”
Election officials will now sift through the seared, soggy pile to see what can be saved. If a ballot can’t be preserved, officials will work to alert the voters who need to resubmit their ballots using the contact information printed on the envelope.
The fire started around 8 p.m. Sunday inside an official drop box at the Baldwin Park library near Ramona and Baldwin Park boulevards.
Los Angeles County Fire Department spokeswoman Leslie Lua said Monday that arson was being investigated as a possible cause of the fire. If confirmed, she said, it would be the first instance of ballot-box arson in the county.
The Baldwin Park box was last emptied around 10 a.m. Saturday, and the fire began at 8 p.m. Sunday, so residents who may have placed their ballots in the box during those intervening hours should check the county’s official ballot tracker for status updates or call (562) 503-2445 for assistance.
About 20 voters have already reached out to arrange for a replacement ballot, Logan said.
The ballot drop-box program began in 2017 as an alternative voting option for L.A.’s 5.7 million registered voters, the largest election jurisdiction in the country. But the boxes gained new prominence this year as a socially distanced choice during the coronavirus pandemic, and vote-by-mail ballots were sent to every registered voter in the county.
Officials said that was partly why Sunday’s incident was so concerning.
“The pandemic has reaffirmed in many ways ... the importance of our civic engagement,” L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said. “It has actually upped the ante, and that extends to the ballot boxes. Elections do matter, and our residents’ voices need to be heard.”
In response to the Baldwin Park incident, Solis said ballot boxes would be emptied nightly through election day on Nov. 3. (The state regulation requires pickup only every 96 hours). A new ballot box will be placed in Baldwin Park in a different location that has “better lighting” in an effort to avoid a similar incident, she said.
“So many of you and your families and your ancestors have fought so hard for us to have the right to vote, and that includes the very residents in Baldwin Park, a hardworking blue-collar community that is part of the fabric of L.A. County,” Solis said Tuesday.
But Los Angeles County won’t go as far as Orange County has. In Orange County, fire-suppressive ballot boxes have been installed to protect against the potential threat of flames. Logan said they considered using the boxes in L.A. County, but testing revealed that — although the boxes are useful in the event of a fire — the suppressant spray could destroy ballots or make them harder to recover.
Because the ballots in the Baldwin Park box pertained to federal and state elections, as well as county-level races, the incident was reported to the FBI and the attorney general in addition to local law enforcement, Logan said. The registrar takes the integrity of all elections very seriously, he said.
“There has been concern in the national narrative about attempts to disrupt the process or create barriers to voting in this election,” he said, “and any sign — or even just the appearance of that — is something we want to respond to quickly.”
Both he and Solis said they hoped the incident wouldn’t affect residents’ desire to vote.
With just two weeks until election day, L.A. County residents have already cast over 1 million ballots.
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