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Newsletter: Does anyone really understand California’s ballot collection law?

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It’s been less than two weeks since a California Republican Party staff member posted a photo on Twitter of himself kneeling next to a dark metal container with a homemade sign that labeled it as an “Official Ballot Drop Off Box.”

It was not an official receptacle. But was there anything wrong with it, other than the sign?

The answer is unclear, which is the subject of a back-and-forth quarrel between state officials and GOP attorneys and activists, highlighting the permissiveness and imprecision of California’s ballot collection laws.

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A drop box by any other name

The week begins with what feels like two different conversations over the same topic, after dueling news conferences on Friday — Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on one side, California Republican Party leaders on the other.

Padilla told reporters on Friday that GOP officials had agreed to “no longer deploy these unstaffed, unsecured, unofficial and unauthorized ballot drop boxes.” And investigators from Becerra’s office issued subpoenas seeking more information on GOP ballot collection activities.

But Republican leaders insisted they had followed the rules and dismissed the “official” signs as the work of overzealous staffers that had been removed. And they fired back at Padilla and Becerra, insisting the two prominent Democrats had been overzealous in their accusations and had never launched similar inquiries into ballot collection efforts by Democratic groups.

Two election laws are at the crux of this debate. The first is a 2016 law that removed the long-standing rule that only a family member could deliver a voter’s ballot. The second, enacted in 2018, clarified that most failures of a ballot collector to follow the rules would not stop the voter’s ballot from being counted.

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State officials, for now, have focused on improper ballot collection, not the boxes being used by GOP activists as long as the containers are supervised. And no one seemed able to answer what penalty might exist if the person collecting the ballot failed to provide the information required on the outside of the absentee envelope — especially vexing in populous Contra Costa County, which removed the space on the envelope for a collector’s information in 2016.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the author of the law removing limits on collection practices now derided by critics as “ballot harvesting,” said it’s possible lawmakers should take a closer look next year at new, detailed chain of custody rules. But she insisted it would be wrong to do anything that created new barriers for voters.

“We have to rely on the judgment of the voter,” she said in an interview on Friday.

3 million California ballots and counting

As of the end of last week, the ballots cast by 14% of California’s registered voters had been received by elections officials. That’s almost three times the number of ballots that had been received earlier in the week, suggesting an acceleration of activity and sure to grow much larger this week.

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Information collected by the firm Political Data shows Californians older than 65 are outperforming the statewide average — with 25% of those voters having returned their ballots. On the other end of the spectrum, only 8% of voters age 34 and younger had participated as of the end of the week. Los Angeles County represents about one-fifth of the ballots cast so far, underperforming its share of the state’s registered voters.

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Cash and clash on the 2020 campaign trail

President Trump‘s brief dash for cash in Orange County on Sunday attracted a large crowd of supporters to the streets outside his Newport Beach fundraiser. Tickets started at $2,800 per person and peaked at $150,000 per couple for co-chair status.

The visit came on the heels of a particularly bizarre moment in the tense relationship between the Republican president and the Golden State. After the Federal Emergency Management Agency refused to provide aid to California for numerous recent wildfires, the decision was suddenly reversed Friday after appeals from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Republican lawmakers.

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On Saturday, the president was in Michigan and seemed to stoke the crowd’s “lock her up” chants against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a little more than a week after law enforcement officials announced they had disrupted a domestic terrorism plot to kidnap the Democrat.

Whitmer said Sunday that Trump was inciting “domestic terrorism” by not stopping the chants.

At this point, it appears the final debate between the president and Joe Biden is still on for Thursday in Nashville. After the first chaotic event and last week’s dueling town halls, it seems hard to predict what’s in store for the final spotlight event of the campaign.

National lightning round

— The U.S. is entering the “most difficult phase” of the pandemic, one expert says, as Trump spars with Democrats over health and economic measures to counter it.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set a Tuesday deadline for the White House on a fiscal stimulus deal before the Nov. 3 election.

— How does the 2020 election look from Palm Beach, Fla., the adopted home of the president and his Mar-a-Lago resort, and a town whose largely white, wealthy population stands in contrast to its surroundings?

— Democratic Senate candidates are raising so much money, campaigns and party operatives say, that they’re looking for new places to spend it, expanding ad buys into more markets.

— Georgia Sen. David Perdue purposefully mangled his colleague Sen. Kamala Harris’ name at a Trump rally. They’ve served together since 2017.

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— The Supreme Court said Friday it would give Trump another chance to exclude immigrants in the U.S. illegally from the 2020 census, in a case that targets the political power of California and other states with large immigrant populations.

California propositions

— Be it a duplex or a delicatessen, a ranch or a sprawling ranch-style home, the same limits apply to all property owners. Proposition 15 would change that, splitting millions of acres of land and buildings into roughly two categories: one for homeowners and one for businesses.

— The end of affirmative action in California came almost a quarter-century ago; Californians have the opportunity in the Nov. 3 election to decide whether to erase that decision with Proposition 16. Meanwhile, can the measure boost California’s Latino-, Black-, Asian- and women-owned companies?

— Who wins with California property tax measure Proposition 19? Older homeowners. Who loses? Those who were counting on the loose tax rules for inherited homes as second homes or rental properties.

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— A group of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders has placed Proposition 20 on the ballot to expand the list of felonies deemed ineligible for early parole, increase penalties for repeat shoplifters and collect DNA samples from those convicted of some misdemeanors.

— The key question surrounding Proposition 21 may be whether expanding rent control makes sense in a COVID-19 recession.

Proposition 24 aims to refine and expand the rules of the California Consumer Privacy Act, the 2019 law that gave Californians more power over how companies collect and sell their information.

Today’s essential California politics

— Trump’s immigration changes will affect California for years, long after he’s left office.

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— In early June, four National Guard spy planes took to the skies over U.S. cities to monitor protests after the killing of George Floyd. One was dispatched to check out the affluent Sacramento suburb of El Dorado Hills, the scene of much smaller and entirely peaceful events and the home of the head of the California National Guard, Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein faces calls to relinquish her senior role on the Judiciary Committee as Democrats slam her performance last week at Judge Amy Coney Barrett‘s hearing.

— Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti did not provide a definitive answer when asked whether he’d like to join a Joe Biden administration but said that “it’s more likely than not” that he’ll be L.A.'s mayor when his term ends in 2022.

— A champion of alternative sentencing, George Gascón had a tenure as district attorney in San Francisco that earned him praise and endorsements. But as Gascón tries to oust Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, his Bay Area record is under a microscope.

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— A Times investigation found that since 2017, at least 265 calls made to police have reported violence inside California’s four privately run federal detention centers overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In only three cases in which detainees said they were victimized did records show a suspect was charged.

— As parents express widespread dissatisfaction with distance learning, two influential California teachers unions are pushing against growing momentum to reopen schools, saying that campuses are not yet safe enough.

— Advisors to Newsom are recommending Californians to skip trick-or-treating this Halloween, though they stopped short of a ban in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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