Dispute Over Unofficial Ballot Boxes Continues in Southern California

Dispute Over Unofficial Ballot Boxes Continues in Southern California
Voters Jeannie Osbourne (L) and Judy Nader (R) stand beside an official Orange County ballot drop box as they prepare to cast their ballots for the 2020 elections at the Orange County Registrar's Office in Santa Ana, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
City News Service

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS)—California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Oct. 16 that state Republican Party officials have agreed to stop using unauthorized ballot collection boxes, but a state party spokesman had a different message.

"The rhetoric is one thing ... but our observations in the field ... is another," Padilla said in a phone call with reporters. "Despite the rhetoric, we continue to hear the state Republican Party has agreed to cease the deployment of unauthorized, unofficial, unsecure ballot drop boxes."

That was news to Republican Party officials in California, said party spokesman Hector Barajas.

"We still get to use the boxes," Barajas said of the unofficial drop boxes that the party purchased and set up in various places in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties, which sparked calls for investigations, including one announced by Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer on Oct. 12.

Spitzer said that Becerra's office has now taken the lead on the investigations.

"We started our investigation, but we're in a kind of holding pattern until we get told or asked to continue to participate," Spitzer said.

State GOP officials acknowledged earlier this week that it was a mistake for activists to place signs indicating the boxes were official and agreed to remove those.

A letter from GOP attorney Thomas Hiltachk on Oct. 14 addressed to Padilla stated that the Republican Party would not be removing the boxes, claiming that they were legal because of California’s ballot harvesting laws, but noting that the party did not intend to use the word “official” as part of the signage on the boxes.

“The California Republican Party did not promote, or authorize the promotion of, the secure boxes as ‘official mail drop boxes,’” the letter stated.

“When we learned that a sign using the word ‘official’ was used in some locations on Saturday, October, 10, 2020, we corrected that error immediately and within hours.”

The letter further stated that the party had not and would not "place boxes unattended, outdoors, or in other places where the general public gather."

Otherwise, "we made no concessions," Barajas said of the use of the ballot collection boxes.

"They realized they didn't have a leg to stand on," Barajas said of Padilla and Becerra, after attorneys for the party sent the letter rejecting the state cease-and-desist order.

"They could have shortened this press conference by saying, 'I'm sorry,'" Barajas said. "That's what it comes out to at the end of the day."

Counting the Votes

Padilla said anyone agreeing to deliver a ballot for someone else to a local election office must sign the outside of the ballot's envelope. But whether that is done or not, the vote will still be counted.

Becerra acknowledged that a failure to sign the envelope won't necessarily disqualify a vote, but he said that won't let the conveyor of the vote off the hook legally.

"We can't hold someone's hand in everything they do," Becerra said. "We think the law is pretty straightforward and anyone who wishes to participate in the process in which you collect the vote, please make sure you're doing it appropriately. ... Please be safe and responsible."

Padilla said the signature of the conveyor of the vote is important.

"The chain of custody in this is critical," Padilla said. "That was not being kept with the unofficial drop boxes. ... It was misleading and deceptive and undermined voters' understanding of how they're surrendering their ballots. ... The Republican Party has acknowledged that in the use of those deceptive boxes."

Becerra added, "The investigation is ongoing. We continue to monitor activities of any entity seeking to collect voters' ballots and we want to admonish anyone participating in these activities to understand what their responsibilities are."

One concern that has been raised is that a party activist could easily scan an envelope to determine if it is being cast by a Democrat or Republican and could dump ballots they don't want counted.

Voters are encouraged to drop their ballots in the mail, in an official drop box monitored by their local Registrar of Voters, at a Registrar of Voters' offices, or at a vote center.

"When that chain of custody is lost, there is no guarantee all the ballots will be returned to the county and on a timely basis," Padilla said.

"Because the law has a default position to respect and protect a vote, and a ballot will be counted even if a name of a designated person is missing, that's the effort California makes to ensure your ballot is counted, but that is not a defense for the person conducting these collection activities that they're not liable," Becerra said.

"Make sure what you're doing is done properly. Simply because a ballot is counted doesn't mean you're absolved of any liability if the conduct was in violation of the law."

Orange County Accusations

On Oct. 15, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel, a Republican who is running to unseat Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Newport Beach), accused her opponent of hypocrisy for operating a voter collection hub that is essentially the same as the unofficial ballot boxes.

Alyssa Napuri, Rouda's campaign manger, struck back, saying they have followed and continue "to follow the letter of the law. Unlike Michelle Steel, and the California GOP, who continue to break California election law by operating unattended, unsecured, and illegal drop-off boxes. This continued flaunting of our local election laws is disqualifying, even for Orange County's most corrupt politician."

Becerra said his office was aware of the accusations regarding Rouda's campaign.

"We will investigate any credible evidence that activities are in violation of election law," Becerra said. "We know the Republican Party provided information on the Rouda campaign and we will follow up where we can to make sure the activities with ballot collection are done properly."

Barajas said, "We don't want people to believe something nefarious is happening," so if the party has to have a specific designated person sign the envelopes, then that's what organizers will do.

"We're just asking for parity in the law," Barajas said. "Treat us as you do Democrats."

Barajas said Republicans  were "late to the ballot harvesting" and are doing what they can to level the playing field.

"This was a way to equalize things, to allow us to get into a ballot collection program," he said.

The party spokesman then wondered why other collection issues hadn't been raised during the past few years by state officials.

"If I go door-to-door and go to your home and pick up your neighbor's ballot, was it in a backpack with a lock on it? Are they OK in the trunk of my car or in my room? None of that has come up, and that is what we've been asking," said Barajas.

"I would rather the ballots be secured in a metal lock box like we provide than some Santa bag or a backpack that the Democrats have been using for the last several years."

Drew Van Voorhis of The Epoch Times contributed to this report.