SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California's Republican Party no longer will label its ballot drop boxes as “official" to avoid confusion with those used by county registrars, but may expand their use even as state officials say they're illegal, a party official said Tuesday.
California GOP spokesman Hector Barajas said the party started using the boxes in three of the most hotly contested congressional districts and now may use them more widely.
“It gives voters another opportunity to be able to turn in their ballots if they choose to do so," he said. “This is just another option.”
California's top elections and law enforcement officials, both Democrats, on Monday said the boxes are illegal, threaten election security and must come down. Those behind the GOP effort could face criminal prosecution, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.
Rick Hasen, an election law expert at University of California, Irvine, said he believes it’s unclear whether the unofficial drop boxes are legal and the courts will have to decide. But he doesn’t recommend them.
“I think it’s a very bad idea. They are not as secure as government drop boxes, which are put in well-lighted places and are tamper-proof,” he said. “I worry about third parties interfering with these privately run drop boxes.”
California has sent every active registered voter a mail-in ballot for the Nov. 3 election and greatly reduced the number of polling places to limit crowds during the pandemic. President Donald Trump and other Republicans have raised questions about the security of mail-in voting, which has been used for many years but will be done at a record level around the country this election.
The California GOP drop boxes are a new version of “vote harvesting," which is legal in California and allows party volunteers to collect multiple ballots and deliver them to election officials.
California’s election officials say anyone who delivers ballots for others must put their name on those ballots and sign them. But a 2018 state law bars ballots from being disqualified if they fail to include these signatures.
Republicans say that means their volunteers can collect ballots in boxes and turn them in without signing their names.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, authored the law and disputed that notion. She said it calls for a voter to give their ballot to a person, “not to put it in an unofficial box sitting outside somewhere.”
As for the signature, she said: “I’m happy to rewrite the law so they will be punished for their behavior.”
The fight over how votes should be submitted has raged between Republicans and Democrats in California for years, with the GOP generally calling for stricter rules and Democrats looking to loosen them to encourage greater turnout. The Democratic majority in the state Legislature has expanded voting options to include casting ballots by mail, putting them in an official secure drop box or giving them to a friend or family member to return to the county election office.
Republicans have opposed some of those efforts, including allowing voters to give their ballots to others, warning it will lead to fraud. But now Republicans are using those laws to defend collecting ballots in these unofficial boxes.
“We are just working with the rules that Democrats put in front of us,” Barajas said. “We’re basically playing on the chessboard they laid out.”
State election authorities and county registrars are urging voters to avoid the GOP boxes, saying they aren't secure, and to instead send ballots by mail or place them in official boxes that have their counties' logos.
The state GOP rolled out its boxes in conjunction with the start of early voting last week. Barajas wouldn't divulge how many were deployed or specify locations, other than to say they were at party and candidates' offices, churches and gun shops in three congressional districts — one in the Central Valley, another north of Los Angeles and a third in Orange County. All three districts saw Democrats defeat Republican incumbents in 2018.
Barajas said a staff member or volunteer has been designated to take any ballots collected to the county registrar about three times a week.
Some of the party's drop boxes were labeled as “official,” even though they are not authorized by county election officials. Barajas said those will be relabeled.
Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles said labeling the boxes official clearly was illegal. It's a closer call for drop boxes that don't carry that label, but Levinson said ultimately she believes those are illegal too because the law covers voters giving their ballots to someone they know, not placing them into a non-government box.
Levinson said she worries the real strategy is for Republicans to create such a stir that it causes voters to doubt the legitimacy of all ballot drop boxes, possibly discouraging them from voting.
“I just really worry that voters will be left thinking, ‘I just don’t want to take part in the process, it’s just too hard,’” she said. “It’s effective just to create chaos and confusion."
Santa Barbara Registrar of Voters Joe Holland said he warned local Republican leaders not to use the boxes.
“Any voter that gives their ballot to some other random person, they are putting a lot of faith in someone that they are going to get their ballot returned,” Holland said.
Mario Mainero, a law professor at Chapman University who previously worked as a Republican chief of staff for an Orange County official, said Democrats have effectively used vote harvesting by picking up ballots from individuals' homes and turning them in.
“I'm assuming they decided on less labor-intensive ways of trying to get at it,” he said of the Republican drop boxes. But, he added, “I just don't see this being very effective.”
Taxin reported from Orange County, California.