LOS ANGELES (CN) — Elections officials in California have launched an investigation into unofficial ballot drop boxes that popped up across the state, saying they do not comply with state law and may in fact constitute a felony.
“Operating unofficial ballot drop boxes — especially those misrepresented as official drop boxes — is not just misleading to voters, it’s a violation of state law,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement Monday.
The unofficial vote-by-mail drop boxes were reported in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties over the weekend and may be tied to the California GOP.
Labeling on the boxes varied, according to social media reports, with some called “official ballot drop off boxes” and others that simply said “ballot drop off.”
In a now-deleted tweet, California GOP regional field director Jordan Tygh posted a photo of himself with a ballot next to one of the unofficial ballot boxes and encouraged people to contact him for locations. Tygh and the California GOP did not immediately respond to email requests for comment.
Padilla’s office said anyone who sets up a vote-by-mail ballot drop box could face felony charges. Only county election officials can designate ballot drop-off locations, the office said.
“It’s unclear how many voters may have used these unofficial drop boxes (or exactly how many were placed),” Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said in a statement, adding his office has reported social media posts to Padilla’s office and the district attorney.
“I can’t comment on any potential or open investigations,” Kelley said.
California GOP spokesperson Hector Barajas told The Associated Press on Monday the party was responsible for setting up the unofficial drop boxes but did not say how many had been set up. In a statement, Barajas called what the party was doing “ballot harvesting,” which he said is allowed under state law.
“The Democrat anger is overblown when state law allows organizations, volunteers or campaign workers to collect completed ballots and drop them off at polling places or election offices,” Barajas said.
Referring to a 2016 state law, he added: “If Democrats are so concerned with ballot harvesting, they are the ones who wrote the legislation, voted for it, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. California Republicans would be happy to do away with ballot harvesting.”
Over the weekend, the person running the party’s Twitter account tweeted: “If a congregation/business or other group provides the option to its parishioners/associates/or colleagues to drop off their ballot in a safe location, with people they trust, rather than handing it over to a stranger who knocks on their door — what is wrong with that?”
In a statement, Congressman Harley Rouda, a Democrat representing part of Orange County in the U.S. House, accused his Republican challenger Michelle Steel of being behind the ballot box episode.
Picking up on a report from The Orange County Register that said a photo of one of the boxes posted on Twitter was at Steel’s campaign headquarters, Rouda said Steel was “proving, yet again, that she is the most corrupt politician in Orange County.”
He added: “This craven, illegal, and criminal behavior is disqualifying.”
Currently a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Steel is running to represent the 48th District, a historically conservative seat that turned blue when Rouda was elected in 2018.
Steel has not responded to the accusations and her campaign did not respond to a phone call for comment. But the Orange County DA said Monday an investigation is ongoing.
“Your vote is your voice,” Orange County DA Todd Spitzer said in a statement. “The right to vote is one of our most sacred rights, and I will not tolerate anyone interfering with someone’s ability to have their voice heard in our democratic process.”
On an afternoon Zoom call, Padilla and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said their offices sent cease and desist letters to the state Republican Party demanding the removal of the drop boxes. Letters were also sent to GOP offices in LA, Orange and Fresno counties to remove the boxes immediately and that could determine if any charges will be filed.
Officials did not specify how many reports they received on the unofficial boxes and in what counties outside the previous three mentioned.
There are reports that some Republican officials are brushing off the calls to remove the boxes, Becerra said.
“We’re getting some disturbing reports that perhaps some of the Republican party officials in parts of the state where these fake drop boxes have been situated may not be prepared or willing to remove those boxes,” he said. “It is illegal, more than illegal, it is irresponsible to tamper with a citizen’s vote.”
Officials said that any voters who may have dropped their ballots into one of these unofficial boxes should sign up for ballot tracking on the California Secretary of State’s webpage.
Official ballot boxes in California are bright yellow and are built of “durable material able to withstand vandalism, removal, and inclement weather and with specific design and function requirements,” according to Padilla’s office.
One of the unofficial boxes appeared in front of a church in LA County last week according to social media posts. In a now-deleted Facebook post, Freedom’s Way Baptist Church pastor Jerry Cook posted a photo of the box and wrote, “Our church has a voting drop box in front of our complex — if you are voting early, drop your ballot on by.”
Cook did not respond to an email seeking comment by press time.