California’s top election official has filed cease and desist orders against Republican Party officials after the party began collecting mail ballots for the November election with drop boxes at churches, gas stations and gun stores.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla said such ballot boxes are not permitted under the state elections code, and the only legal drop boxes are those deployed and maintained by county elections officials.
In a press conference with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Monday, Padilla said the state had filed a cease and desist order with the CA GOP and local Republican parties in Fresno, Orange and Los Angeles Counties.
“Let me be clear: unofficial, unauthorized ballot drop boxes are not permitted by state law,” Padilla said.
While ballot collecting is permitted in California, Padilla said voters must authorize collectors, and the collectors must sign the envelopes and state their relationship to the voter. Unofficial drop boxes do not constitute ballot collecting, he said, because there is no identified person that is authorized by the voter to take their ballot to be counted.
But state Republicans disagree. Hector Barajas, spokesperson for the CA GOP, said the unofficial ballot boxes are permitted under the state’s ballot-collecting — sometimes called ballot-harvesting — laws.
“In California, where you can have convicted felons and individuals with a criminal history go door to door and collect ballots from voters, Democrats are now upset because organizations, individuals and groups are offering an opportunity for their friends, family, and patrons to drop off their ballot with someone they know and trust,” Barajas said in a statement. “The Democrat anger is overblown when state law allows organizations, volunteers or campaign workers to collect completed ballots and drop them off at polling places or election offices.”
Barajas said the party has no intention of removing the drop boxes. Attorney General Becerra said Monday those who don’t comply could face prosecution.
“We hope the message goes out loud and clear to anyone who is trying improperly solicit, obtain and manage a citizen’s vote, that they are subject to prosecution for engaging in activity against the law,” Becerra said.
The locations — which included at least half a dozen gun shops, a gas station and the Fresno GOP headquarters — were previously listed on the local Republican party’s website.
Fresno Republicans promoted the locations as a reliable way to make sure votes count.
“President (Donald) Trump is very concerned about the lack of security with mail-in ballots,” the Fresno GOP website read. “Don’t take a chance that your vote will not be counted. Once your ballot arrives in the mail, mark your ballot completely and then walk it in, as soon as possible, to one of the secure locations listed below.”
All California counties have official ballot drop box sites where voters can return their mail-in ballots, if they prefer to avoid sending them back through the mail. But the locations are designated by county elections officials, not political parties. There are more than 20 official locations in Fresno, including grocery stores, pharmacies, schools and parks.
Padilla’s office issued guidance to all county elections officials on Sunday after reports of unauthorized ballot drop boxes in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Orange counties.
“Operating unofficial ballot drop boxes — especially those misrepresented as official drop boxes — is not just misleading to voters, it’s a violation of state law,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement. “My office is coordinating with local officials to address the multiple reports of unauthorized ballot drop boxes. Californians should only use official ballot drop boxes that have been deployed and secured by their county elections office. Official ballot drop boxes and drop-off locations can be found at caearlyvoting.sos.ca.gov.”
Even if boxes are not labeled “official” ballot drop boxes, the guidance said, they would still violate state law.
“When a voter drops off a ballot in an unauthorized, non-official vote-by-mail drop box, no designated ‘person’ would be signing, as required by state law,” the guidance states. “A person designated by the voter to return their vote-by-mail ballot envelope to the county elections official within the required time period by law, must provide their name, signature and relationship to the voter.”
Barajas, with the California Republican Party, said state law does not specify which type of containers could be used in ballot collecting. He noted that the state’s Democrat-controlled Legislature changed the law to allow mass ballot harvesting in 2016.
“The Democrats amended the law to remove all of the restrictions on who can harvest ballots and provided no rules about how ballots can be collected except that someone cannot be compensated per-ballot,” he said. “The (California Republican Party’s) program goes above and beyond, is less coercive and more secure than other methods of collecting ballots.
“The way Democrats wrote the law, if we wanted to use a Santa bag, we could. A locked, heavy box seems a lot safer,” he said.
The Fresno County Republican Party was among the organizations that posted and promoted unauthorized ballot boxes.
Fred Vanderhoof, chairman of the Fresno GOP, said they are removing the boxes and taking all ballots turned in at those sites to county elections officials. That had always been their intention, Vanderhoof said, and they had thought their plans were allowed under California’s ballot collection law.
“Democrats are allowed to engage in ballot harvesting, but Republicans are not allowed to ballot harvest,” Vanderhoof said.
On Monday, Becerra and Padilla encouraged voters to take advantage of the multiple safe ways of returning their mail ballots, including taking them to vote centers, dropping them in official county ballot boxes, or sending them by mail.
They urged those who believe they may have dropped their ballot at unofficial drop boxes to track it using the state’s “Where’s My Ballot?” tool.
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