LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California Republican Party leaders, egged on by President Donald Trump, vowed on Wednesday to keep collecting ballots that voters deliver to party-furnished drop boxes in churches, gun shops and campaign offices, a practice they defended as perfectly legal.
Republicans were responding to a cease-and-desist order on Tuesday from California’s top elections official, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, demanding removal of “unauthorized and non-official” vote-by-mail ballot boxes set up by the party in at least three counties.
Padilla and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, both Democrats, said they were giving party officials until Thursday to comply with terms of the order or face legal action, including possible prosecution.
Partisan fights over mail ballots and drop-box collections have become a defining issue in the 2020 U.S. presidential race, as the popularity of such voting methods surges this year due to the coronavirus pandemic and concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays.
Trump and his political allies have warned, without citing evidence, that voting by mail and drop boxes are rife with fraud, while Democrats have accused Republicans of using such unfounded claims to suppress the vote.
The latest clash over drop boxes in California, a Democratic stronghold, appeared to turn the usual partisan dynamic on its head.
Becerra and Padilla asserted that under state law, only local elections officials can legally operate drop boxes - secured, clearly marked, publicly placed receptacles where voters can submit their ballots rather than entrust them to the Postal Service or brave potentially crowded polling places on Election Day.
“Unofficial, unauthorized drop boxes are not permitted in the state of California,” Padilla told reporters on Tuesday.
Republican officials have acknowledged erecting an unspecified number of party-furnished boxes in several jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties, over the past two weeks.
Those boxes, they said, were placed inside churches, party campaign offices and private venues of other participating entities, including gun shops and firing ranges, where voters can deposit ballots with attendants posted there to accept them. Those ballots, party officials say, are then turned over within 72 hours to county election offices, as state law requires.
Republican leaders said doing so was legal under rule changes, enacted by the Democratic-controlled legislature, allowing voters to designate third-party individuals outside their immediate families or households to collect and submit ballots on their behalf.
California Republicans had opposed those changes and disparaged them as “ballot harvesting” - a practice they said was now being employed by some Democratic candidates and union supporters without objection from state officials.
A small, “isolated” number of the party’s ballot boxes were briefly mislabeled as “official” - a violation corrected within hours, state Republican Party attorney Thomas Hiltachk said in a telephone conference call with reporters.
Hiltachk denied the party was trying to mislead voters. He said he did not know how many ballots were received in party drop boxes so far.
“The program you now falsely claim to be illegal is a perfect example of what you ‘proudly’ stated to be permissible just last year,” he wrote in his letter of response to Padilla on Wednesday.
Temporarily holding completed ballots “in a locked box at a church of local party headquarters is more secure than a party volunteer or paid operative holding harvested ballots collected from voters at a senior center in the backseat of his or her car - though both are legal,” Hiltachk wrote.
A spokeswoman for Padilla said the secretary of state was reviewing Hiltachk’s letter and would likely respond on Thursday.
Trump weighed into the controversy late on Tuesday, retweeting a Los Angeles Times story about the dispute and adding, “You mean only Democrats are allowed to do this?” He added, “See you in court. Fight hard Republicans!”
Neal Kelley, the registrar of voters for Orange County, appeared to confirm the validity of Republicans’ position.
In an email to Reuters, Kelley said any “unattended” ballot box is prohibited unless operated by elections officials. But third-party rules allowing voters to assign another person to collect their ballots also permit those ballots to “be placed in any container/holder” to ensure proper custody until they are delivered to county election offices within 72 hours.
Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican Party national committeewoman for California, said Padilla’s cease-and-desist letter amounted to a “voter suppression effort aimed at intimidating California Republican Party officials and volunteers from gathering and delivering ballots to the registrars of voters in a legally compliant fashion.”
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.