California attorney general asks court to order GOP cooperation in ballot box investigation
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on Tuesday sought a court order to force state Republican officials to turn over information about the party’s use of private drop boxes for collecting ballots in a handful of counties across the state.
Leaders of the California Republican Party have insisted the program has followed all applicable rules and regulations and accused both Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla of a partisan investigation.
Last week, Republicans and the two Democratic state officials criticized each other in a series of dueling public statements over the GOP’s distribution of metal containers to party offices, churches and private businesses where voters were invited to deposit their completed ballots.
California election law allows voters to “designate a person” to collect and return a ballot, but it only mentions drop boxes operated by county elections officials. Social media postings earlier this month showed some receptacles with the label “official drop box,” prompting state elections officials to send a cease-and-desist letter to Republicans demanding the removal of the signs.
The complaint filed in Sacramento County Superior Court alleges several examples of the drop boxes being promoted as either “authorized” or “official.” It says the GOP effort “caused confusion among voters, prompted complaints from county elections officials alarmed about their use, and raised serious concerns about whether the appropriate chain of custody was being observed for ballots deposited” in the boxes.
“Here in California, we’re doing everything in our power to protect the integrity of our elections,” Becerra said in a written statement. “As part of that and pursuant to our statutory authority, we issued subpoenas and interrogatories to determine the extent to which the deployment of unauthorized ballot drop boxes may have impacted Californians.”
State GOP officials said last week that the labels were the work of “overzealous” local volunteers and that they were quickly replaced. And they have insisted that without those erroneous signs, there is nothing else about their effort to cause concern.
Becerra’s complaint said that the California Republican Party and local party officials in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties have not complied with a subpoena to turn over the names and addresses of the voters whose ballots were collected or information about how many boxes were distributed by the GOP.
Disclosure of the locations of the drop boxes, the complaint says, is important “to ensure that any ballot collection activity that may still be occurring at those sites comports with state law.”
Becerra’s court filing notes that state officials still don’t know how many ballots were placed in the Republican receptacles prior to the effort to demand changes to the collection program. The filing notes that the owner of a smog check shop in Clovis, where one box was placed, told state investigators that approximately 25 ballots had been delivered there.
Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party, said the request for voter information is unwarranted and the party won’t comply.
“This is an abuse of power. The California Republican Party responded and objected to the attorney general’s subpoenas on numerous grounds, including the right to privacy,” he said in an emailed statement. “We will stand up to this type of authoritarian bullying tactics.”
Tom Hiltachk, an attorney representing the GOP, argued in a formal response to the attorney general on Monday that the state has no authority to investigate “noncriminal activities that are constitutionally protected” and that handing over information would “violate the secrecy of the ballot and the trust of the voters” who used the drop boxes.
GOP officials have said they are continuing to use the drop boxes but have declined to offer any additional details. However, not all locations are still being used. Last week, the pastor of Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Castaic told L.A. County elections officials that the box the church had been using was no longer on the property and provided an email confirming that information from the deputy executive director of the state GOP.
Almost 4 million California voters have returned their ballots to county elections offices across the state. Local elections officials in most communities have deployed bulky drop boxes built to state specifications. The boxes, which must be emptied regularly by local elections workers who follow strict rules regarding the custody of the ballots, will be in place for voters to use through election day.
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