Unofficial “Official” Ballot Drop Boxes Draw Ire of CA Election Officials

[Image via laist]

California state and local election officials are criticizing state Republicans after reports surfaced over the weekend of unofficial ballot drop boxes being marked as “official.” The LA Times has more:

California’s attorney general and chief elections officer on Monday sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican Party officials demanding that they immediately stop using private ballot collection containers marked as “official” drop boxes, saying that the do-it-yourself containers that have appeared in several communities across the state are illegal.

Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla also demanded that GOP officials provide by Thursday a list of all voters whose ballots have been collected using the boxes to ensure the documents were collected with permission.

“Let me be clear, unofficial, unauthorized ballot drop boxes are not permitted by state law,” Padilla said in an online event with reporters. “Political parties and campaigns can engage in get-out-the-vote efforts, but they cannot violate state law.”

Republicans say the practice is legal due to changes in state slaw regarding so-called “ballot harvesting”:

A spokesman for the California Republican Party rejected the allegation of wrongdoing, insisting the practice is allowed under a 2016 state law that allows a voter to designate any person to collect a completed ballot and return it to election officials, a polling place or vote center, or a secure vote-by-mail drop box…

Questions were first raised over the weekend, when a Newport Beach Republican official posted a photo of himself on Twitter posing next to a metal delivery box, the size of an office filing cabinet, marked “official ballot drop off box.” The container was not, however, provided or overseen by Orange County elections officials.

The local official in Newport Beach warned voters to avoid unofficial ballot drop locations:

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said it is unclear how many similar boxes are being used or their locations. “Voters who want to return their ballot at a drop box should only use official county drop boxes,” he said. “Official ballot drop boxes are clearly recognizable, designed to meet state standards for security, and bear the official Orange County elections logo.”

A variety of other private collection boxes prompted complaints on social media over the weekend. A box similar to the one that Tygh posed with was reported outside of a church in Castaic, and another was found outside of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Simi Valley labeled “Ballot Drop Box.” Church officials declined to comment.

Photos from Fresno depicted a sign promising a “secure ballot drop off location” that was not one provided by the county’s elections office. And late last week, a list of locations sponsored by the Fresno County Republican Party showed a dozen ballot drop-off locations not authorized by elections officials, including gun shops and firing ranges…

The Orange County District Attorney’s office is investigating the situation, said press information officer Kimberly Edds. “We’re still in our legal review, and we haven’t made a determination, but there are strict restrictions on what governs an official ballot box,” she said.

State officials re-emphasized that only local election offices can install and manage official drop boxes:

State elections officials on Sunday said the boxes are prohibited by California law. A five-page memorandum sent to county elections offices from Jana Lean, chief of the secretary of state’s enforcement division, said the receptacles were not consistent with ballot collection rules.

“County elections officials alone have the authority to designate the location, hours of operation, and number of drop boxes in the county,” Lean wrote, “and have the responsibility for ensuring compliance with all applicable statutes and regulations that guarantee the security and chain of custody of vote-by-mail ballots deposited.”

The stakes are high in California given the sheer volume of mail ballots expected this fall:

In an election in which more than 21 million registered voters have been mailed a ballot, the proper procedures for casting and submitting an absentee ballot have taken on new urgency, alongside an array of concerns about whether the U.S. Postal Service will deliver ballots on time to be counted. Many Californians unfamiliar with the process will also be casting a vote by mail for the first time.

Every county offers voters locations to return a completed ballot, using heavy-duty and tightly locked drop boxes that must meet a variety of state-specific regulations. Local elections officials mailed voters a list of these locations, along with the hours of operation for collection boxes inside businesses or other buildings, at the same time as sending out sample ballots and voter guides.

It is isn’t clear, but the unofficial GOP ballot boxes could be a form of protest against a new state law allowing broader collection and return of completed ballots:

The state law in question replaced a previous rule limiting ballot delivery to a family member or someone living in the same household and explicitly prohibited collection by political parties and campaigns. Republicans, in particular, have criticized the loosened process by mocking it as “ballot harvesting.” They unsuccessfully sued to block its use during the spring special election won by Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) and now argue the statute makes their use of the private collection boxes legal.

“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, the party spokesman, said in a statement…

The official ballot envelope still requires the name and signature of the person who has been authorized to return it for the voter. While a ballot will be counted even if the person returning it isn’t identified, local elections officials could use that information to investigate any irregularities — concerns that would be less likely to arise if the ballot is placed in an official, county-provided drop box.

This controversy is just the latest iteration in the same old “access versus integrity” debate that underpins much of election policy. Here’s hoping that the two parties can take a break from the inevitable (and incredibly tiresome) rhetoric over voter fraud and ensure that all voters have an opportunity to safely cast a timely and valid 2020 ballot. Stay tuned …

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