Sub­poe­nas is­sued over state GOP’s il­licit bal­lot boxes

De­cry­ing ‘ thug­gish’ tactics by Democrats, Repub­li­can of­fi­cials main­tain that their ac­tiv­i­ties are le­gal.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Sarah Parvini, John My­ers and Stephanie Lai

Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials on Fri­day said that the state Repub­li­can Party has agreed to no longer de­ploy “un­staffed, un­se­cured, un­of­fi­cial and unau­tho­rized” pri­vate bal­lot boxes and that sub­poe­nas have been is­sued in an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into how the con­tain­ers have been used in at least three coun­ties.

“The Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can Party can con­duct valid col­lec­tion ac­tiv­i­ties, but they have to play by the rules and fol­low state law,” Cal­i­for­nia Sec­re­tary of State

Alex Padilla told re­porters.

But aside from cor­rect­ing some boxes that were wrongly la­beled as “of­fi­cial” lo­ca­tions for drop­ping off com­pleted bal­lots, GOP of­fi­cials con­tin­ued Fri­day to in­sist that their ac­tiv­i­ties have been le­gal. Party lead­ers have said they will con­tinue to use the boxes to col­lect bal­lots, with staffers over­see­ing the process and de­liv­er­ing the bal­lots to county elec­tions of­fices.

The bat­tle be­tween state of­fi­cials and the GOP — sparked by rev­e­la­tions over the week­end that Repub­li­cans were sta­tion­ing un­of­fi­cial gray, metal re­cep­ta­cles in Los An­ge­les, Or­ange and Fresno coun­ties — has cen­tered on the le­gal­ity of us­ing third- party col­lec­tion boxes.

Cal­i­for­nia law re­quires the per­son col­lect­ing a voter’s bal­lot to f ill out the in­for­ma­tion on the ab­sen­tee en­ve­lope be­fore hand­ing it

over to elec­tion of­fi­cials. State law also stip­u­lates that a mail voter may des­ig­nate an­other per­son to re­turn their bal­lot.

The bins have con­fused vot­ers, Padilla said, adding that the Repub­li­can Party has “tried to spin their un­law­ful con­duct by play­ing the vic­tim all week long.”

Should his of­fice re­ceive any in­di­ca­tion that state law is be­ing vi­o­lated, he said, it “will not hes­i­tate to act on it im­me­di­ately.”

“We are try­ing to make sure that the law is fol­lowed,” Atty. Gen. Xavier Be­cerra said. “We’re not go­ing to mother, or shep­herd them through, ev­ery day of ac­tiv­ity.”

Late Fri­day morn­ing, the state Repub­li­can Party coun­tered that it has made no con­ces­sion to the at­tor­ney gen­eral or the sec­re­tary of state.

“In two phone calls with nine at­tor­ney gen­eral lawyers, they never re­quested the Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can Party to do any­thing ex­cept pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about our pro­gram and to turn over records, in­clud­ing names of vot­ers, which we have de­clined to do,” said Cal­i­for­nia GOP spokesman Hec­tor Bara­jas.

“This is a thug­gish voter in­tim­i­da­tion and vote sup­pres­sion tac­tic by our Demo­cratic at­tor­ney gen­eral and sec­re­tary of state,” he added.

Repub­li­cans as­sert that they are op­er­at­ing un­der a 2016 state law that al­lows an un­lim­ited num­ber of com­pleted bal­lots to be col­lected by an in­di­vid­ual or po­lit­i­cal par­ties and cam­paigns. State of­fi­cials ar­gue that the unau­tho­rized boxes are mis­lead­ing and il­le­gal.

The pri­vate bins have raised ques­tions about the chain of cus­tody of bal­lots, as well as con­cerns over the abil­ity to en­force the in­tegrity of elec­tions. The boxes were placed at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing gun shops, shoot­ing ranges, churches and Repub­li­can Party of­fices. State elec­tion of­fi­cials say there is a dis­tinc­tion be­tween des­ig­nat­ing a third party to de­liver a bal­lot for a voter and plac­ing a bal­lot into an un­of­fi­cial box.

The dis­pute adds to grow­ing par­ti­san ran­cor over al­le­ga­tions of voter sup­pres­sion and voter fraud in the run-up to the Nov. 3 elec­tion.

For years, Repub­li­cans have de­cried the use of so­called “bal­lot har­vest­ing” as a form of elec­tion fraud. A House Repub­li­can study raised con­cerns about “po­lit­i­cally weaponized bal­lot har­vest­ing” in May, de­cry­ing the prac­tice as ripe for voter fraud and abuse with­out of­fer­ing proof of fraud in Cal­i­for­nia races.

In Cal­i­for­nia, the state’s Repub­li­can Party has taken Gov. Gavin New­som and other of­fi­cials to court over the prac­tice.

In Texas, a fed­eral ap­peals court ruled this week that the state can limit ab­sen­tee bal­lot drop-off spots to only one per county.

And last year, a Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive in

North Carolina was in­dicted on felony charges in con­nec­tion with his al­leged in­volve­ment in a “bal­lot har­vest­ing” scheme dur­ing the 2016 gen­eral elec­tion and 2018 elec­tions. It is il­le­gal in North Carolina for any­one other than the voter, a close rel­a­tive or le­gal guardian to de­liver a voter’s mail-in bal­lot.

Pres­i­dent Trump waded into the fracas Tues­day evening and again Wed­nes­day morn­ing by retweet­ing a Times story, urg­ing, “Fight hard Repub­li­cans!”

State party of­fi­cials re­peat­edly have de­clined to say how many bal­lots have been col­lected from the boxes or to pro­vide de­tails on how many drop boxes are un­der their su­per­vi­sion and what rules and pro­ce­dures are be­ing used in the col­lec­tion and de­liv­ery of bal­lots.

Bara­jas told The Times ear­lier this week that “we col­lect [the bal­lots], we trans­mit them, and we have a process that en­ables us to make sure that they are pro­cessed by the [regis­trar of vot­ers], just like the gen­eral pub­lic.”

Bara­jas has said that the party is “look­ing at po­ten­tially ex­pand­ing” its bal­lot col­lect­ing pro­gram.

Dur­ing a telephone con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, the Cal­i­for­nia GOP’s at­tor­ney said an “overzeal­ous vol­un­teer” was to blame for putting the word “of­fi­cial” on some of the party’s pri­vate drop boxes. Of­fi­cials said that lan­guage was re­moved from the con­tain­ers over the week­end.

Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Party Chair­man Rusty Hicks said he felt the Repub­li­can bal­lot col­lec­tion boxes fell short of what the law man­dates, cit­ing con­cerns of se­cu­rity and over­sight.

“They’re try­ing to make the case that a metal fil­ing cabi­net is the same as the per­son,” Hicks said. “I be­lieve what the Repub­li­cans are do­ing is a cre­ative at­tempt to add con­fu­sion to the elec­tion.”

State law says that a “vote by mail bal­lot drop box” should be a “se­cure re­cep­ta­cle es­tab­lished by a county or city and county elec­tions of­fi­cial whereby a voted vote by mail bal­lot may be re­turned to the elec­tions of­fi­cial from whom it was ob­tained.”

A spokesper­son for the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice said in an email that law­fully col­lected bal­lots may be stored in a num­ber of ways, “but they may not be col­lected through unau­tho­rized drop boxes.” The term “drop” was em­pha­sized in the email in bold­face.

“In other words,” the spokesper­son said, “if bal­lots have been col­lected law­fully, they may be stored in a se­cure box as long as they are de­liv­ered within three days.”

But in at least one pop­u­lous county, the mail-in bal­lot en­ve­lope has not in­cluded space for a bal­lot col­lec­tor’s name and sig­na­ture since 2016.

“We re­moved that line and lan­guage from the re­turn en­ve­lope,” said Scott Konopasek, the as­sis­tant regis­trar of vot­ers in Con­tra Costa County.

He said the elec­tion code lan­guage gov­ern­ing the re­quire­ment for in­for­ma­tion from a bal­lot col­lec­tor was ren­dered in­op­er­a­tive once the state re­moved the rules over who could de­liver the doc­u­ment on be­half of the voter.

“Coun­ties don’t do any­thing with it,” Konopasek said of the in­for­ma­tion. “Why put crap on the en­ve­lope and mis­lead peo­ple?”

In some cases, Repub­li­can of­fi­cials were ad­vised not to dis­trib­ute the drop boxes. Joe Hol­land, the regis­trar of vot­ers in Santa Bar­bara County, said party rep­re­sen­ta­tives con­tacted his of­fice at least two weeks be­fore the boxes started show­ing up in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the Cen­tral Val­ley.

“We said no, don’t do that,” Hol­land said in re­count­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. “We have 30 of­fi­cial drop boxes across the county. If you go to an of­fi­cial drop box, that’s like di­rectly de­posit­ing your bal­lot with a county elec­tions of­fi­cial.”

Hol­land said two-thirds of the bal­lots re­ceived so far from vot­ers have ar­rived in the mail. And while he said he doesn’t be­lieve a pri­vate box is il­le­gal, it could be con­sid­ered “un­eth­i­cal.” It was not im­me­di­ately clear whether any of the un­of­fi­cial boxes were placed in Santa Bar­bara.

Elaine Gin­nold, the for­mer Marin County regis­trar of vot­ers, said the GOP’s move is “very risky,” be­cause “they leave them­selves open to ac­cu­sa­tions of tam­per­ing with the bal­lots.”

“Our laws al­low some­body to give their bal­lot to some­body else,” she said. “They’re just tak­ing it, I think, to an ab­surd ex­treme .... It’s just not re­spon­si­ble.”

Gin­nold added that she was glad state of­fi­cials have pushed back against the un­of­fi­cial bal­lot drop boxes, which she de­scribed as a “Wild West” take on elec­tion law.

“There are other ways to go about this,” she said.

Allen J. Schaben Los An­ge­les Times

CAITLIN HARJES of Or­ange, with An­gel San­ti­ago of Santa Ana, places her bal­lot in an of­fi­cial Or­ange County drop box. Sec­re­tary of State Alex Padilla said unau­tho­rized GOP boxes have con­fused vot­ers.

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