POLITICS

California's Republican Party Told To Remove Its Unofficial Vote-By-Mail Collection Boxes

After the state GOP defended its use of makeshift ballot drop boxes falsely labeled "official," authorities issued a cease-and-desist order.

California’s attorney general and secretary of state told Republicans on Monday to knock it off after election officials reported that the state party had been breaking the law by placing makeshift, unauthorized ballot dropoff boxes around the state and falsely labeling them “official.” 

Following reports of the mysterious ballot collection boxes on Sunday, the chief of California’s elections division released a statement saying “the use of unauthorized, non-official vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes does not comply with state law governing ballot collection activities.”

An election worker places a mail-in ballot into an election box at a drive-through drop-off location at the Registrar of Vote
An election worker places a mail-in ballot into an election box at a drive-through drop-off location at the Registrar of Voters in San Diego in 2018.

On Monday morning, Orange County’s Republican voter registrar released a statement reiterating that unofficial ballot boxes are illegal and urging voters to deposit ballots into boxes that bear the official county seal. 

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Monday that they have sent cease-and-desist letters to the state Republican Party and county Republican organizations to immediately remove the fake drop boxes in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties.

“Unofficial, unauthorized ballot drop boxes are not permitted by state law,” Padilla said at a news conference Monday. “We are sending guidance to all political parties reminding them of the rules as it pertains to official ballot drop boxes. Misleading voters is wrong, regardless of who’s doing it.”

The cease-and-desist letter, a copy of which HuffPost obtained, requires the state Republican Party to arrange with the attorney general’s office to provide county elections officials with the names, addresses and birth date information of voters who had already dropped off their ballot in the unofficial drop boxes by Thursday. GOP officials must also immediately return and surrender to the appropriate county election official any vote-by-mail ballots received through the fake drop boxes.

The first unofficial boxes were spotted in Southern California, according to the Orange County Register and KCAL-TV. At least one of the boxes disappeared after local residents notified election officials in Los Angeles County, and it’s not clear how many, if any, ballots had already been deposited before the box was removed.

“There is nothing more precious or fundamental in a real democracy than the vote,” Becerra said in a statement. “Anyone who tampers with the vote is tampering with free and fair elections. We will do all that’s necessary under law to protect Californians’ right to vote.”

The California GOP previously promoted the unofficial collection boxes on social media and on a now-defunct web page hosted by the Fresno County chapter of the party. 

The state GOP defended the boxes on Twitter after election officials condemned them on Sunday, revealing how the party is undermining legal get-out-the-vote activities.

“If a congregation/business or other group provides the option to its parishioners/associates/ or colleagues to drop off their ballot in a safe location, with people they trust, rather than handing it over to a stranger who knocks on their door - what is wrong with that?” the California GOP tweeted on Sunday.

The National Republican Congressional Committee tweeted a similar defense. 

But the answer is fairly simple, according to California law: A box is not a person.

Voters are legally allowed to “designate a person to return the ballot to the elections official who issued the ballot.” Often, voters unable to make it to an official ballot box themselves will designate a volunteer to drop their ballot off for them. Earlier this year, California Republicans sued Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and other state officials to ban this practice, which was codified into law in 2016.

Many Americans are expected to vote from home this year due to the worsening coronavirus pandemic, and designating a volunteer is one vital way to do so. But California Republicans argued that the pandemic is reason to allow less voting from home, not more. 

“If we can’t see our mothers on Mother’s Day, then strangers shouldn’t be visiting our homes to collect ballots,” California Republican Party Chair Jessica Millan Patterson said in April.

To be clear, the state of California does allow designated volunteers to drop off voters’ ballots, but it does not and never has disallowed anyone from visiting their mothers on Mother’s Day.