Cal­i­for­nia GOP says it won’t re­move un­of­fi­cial bal­lot boxes

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS | ELECTION - Adam Beam and Amy Taxin

SACRA­MENTO, Calif. – Af­ter more than 1.5 mil­lion votes have been cast, state Repub­li­can Party lead­ers said Wed­nes­day they will not com­ply with an or­der from the chief elec­tions of­fi­cial to re­move un­of­fi­cial bal­lot drop boxes from coun­ties with com­pet­i­tive U.S. House races.

Sec­re­tary of State Alex Padilla and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Xavier Be­cerra, both Democrats, said the drop boxes are il­le­gal. They said vot­ers could con­fuse the Repub­li­can boxes with of­fi­cial bal­lot drop boxes put in place and mon­i­tored by county elec­tion of­fi­cials.

Thomas Hil­tachk, the Repub­li­can Party’s gen­eral coun­sel, said the boxes com­ply with Cal­i­for­nia’s “bal­lot har­vest­ing” law, which lets peo­ple col­lect bal­lots from vot­ers and re­turn them to county elec­tion of­fices to be counted.

Hil­tachk said all of the party’s drop boxes are in­doors at county party head

quar­ters, churches or re­tail­ers that agreed to par­tic­i­pate. He said the boxes are locked and mon­i­tored by peo­ple.

“The fact that it is a box does not make it il­le­gal,” Hil­tachk said. “If we have to use a bag, then we’ll use a bag.”

Once a voter fills out a bal­lot, any­one can re­turn it. Most peo­ple mail them in pre­paid en­velopes pro­vided by their county elec­tion of­fices. Oth­ers place them in of­fi­cial bal­lot drop boxes through­out the county.

State law de­fines a “vote by mail bal­lot drop box” as a “se­cure re­cep­ta­cle es­tab­lished by a county or city and county elec­tions of­fi­cial.” The sec­re­tary of state has rules about the boxes’ de­sign, how they should be la­beled and how often bal­lots should be re­trieved. County elec­tion of­fi­cials de­cide how many boxes to have and where to put them.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties col­lect bal­lots from sup­port­ers and re­turn them to county elec­tion of­fices, a prac­tice known as “bal­lot har­vest­ing.” Some states banned this prac­tice, but it’s le­gal in Cal­i­for­nia.

Most of the time, bal­lot har­vest­ing is done by vol­un­teers who go door to door to col­lect bal­lots from sup­port­ers. This year, Repub­li­cans set up boxes for peo­ple to drop off their bal­lots.

Democrats, in­clud­ing Gov. Gavin New­som, de­cried the boxes as an at­tempt to con­fuse vot­ers. A cease-and­de­sist or­der from the sec­re­tary of state’s office noted some boxes were put in pub­lic places and la­beled as of­fi­cial.

Wed­nes­day, Hil­tachk blamed “per­haps an overzeal­ous vol­un­teer” for mis­la­bel­ing drop boxes as “of­fi­cial.” He said none of the boxes car­ries those la­bels.

“The let­ter from the Demo­crat Sec­re­tary of State is a voter sup­pres­sion ef­fort, aimed at in­tim­i­dat­ing Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can Party of­fi­cials and vol­un­teers from gath­er­ing and de­liv­er­ing bal­lots,” said Harmeet Dhillon, an at­tor­ney and mem­ber of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee.

Padilla’s office did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. Be­cerra’s office said it re­ceived the Repub­li­can Party’s re­sponse and was re­view­ing it.

The Sec­re­tary of State’s Office re­ported Wed­nes­day that more than 1.5 mil­lion vote-by-mail bal­lots have been re­turned. In 2016, 150,000 peo­ple had re­turned their vote-by-mail bal­lots at this point in the elec­tion cy­cle.

MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/AP

Demo­cratic of­fi­cials in Cal­i­for­nia say un­of­fi­cial Repub­li­can drop boxes could be con­fused with of­fi­cial bal­lot drop boxes.

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