California GOP Agrees to Remove Unofficial Ballot Drop Boxes. Or Did They?

(CN) — Following a legal demand from California officials, the state Republican Party said Friday it has agreed to remove unofficial drop boxes its members placed in multiple counties to collect vote-by-mail ballots. But uncertainty looms after several GOP leaders said the boxes will continue to be deployed. 

In this now-deleted Twitter post, California GOP operative Jordan Tygh stands next to an unofficial ballot drop box, one of several the state Republican Party has installed across California.

State election officials were alerted to the unauthorized ballot drop boxes sprouting up across Fresno, Los Angeles, and Orange counties after a Southern California Republican Party field employee tweeted a picture holding a ballot next to one of the boxes.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office immediately launched an investigation, saying the installation of boxes may constitute a felony.

Only county election officials can designate ballot drop-off locations, according to California law.

But Republican Party leaders defended the ballot collection effort, citing their interpretation of a 2016 California law allowing voters to have their ballot returned by someone they trust.

California GOP officials received a cease and desist letter Monday demanding that any ballots dropped into the unofficial boxes be recorded and returned to county election officials. The joint letter from Padilla and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the GOP had until Thursday to comply with the legal demand or face action by both offices to enforce state law.

In a virtual press conference Friday, both Padilla and Becerra said attorneys for the California GOP agreed to “concessions” on their ballot collection program. 

“Among other things, they will not make available or condone the use of unstaffed, unsecured unofficial ballot drop boxes,” Padilla said in a prepared statement. “This is an important step in stopping the voter confusion created by their ballot collection activities.” 

Padilla told reporters that while ballot collection is legal in California, programs must comply with state law governing signature and staffing requirements and the “chain of custody” regulation for ballots. Under state law, anyone assisting a voter with returning their ballot must add their signature to the return envelope, Padilla said. 

“Just be honest,” Padilla said. “Why have to play games and why have to deceive voters?” 

Becerra said his office has issued subpoenas as part of an ongoing investigation into the state GOP’s program. 

“The integrity and confidence in the vote here in California is paramount,” Becerra said. “Tampering with votes is not just illegal, it’s irresponsible. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

But some Republican lawmakers tweeted during Becerra and Padilla’s press conference that the state GOP would continue their ballot collection efforts.

Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore said on Twitter the party would continue to use ballot drop boxes.

“We’re still deploying the boxes,” Melendez tweeted. “They will of course be secure.”

Representative Ken Calvert, a Republican representing the 42nd congressional district, rebuked the action by state election officials.  

“Instead of working with us to fix an error that was already quickly resolved, the Democrats that run our state tried to intimidate people of faith and Republicans and suppress their vote,” Calvert tweeted. “We have stood our ground and our legal ballot collections WILL continue.”

In response to the tweets, Padilla told reporters his office has a clear commitment on concessions from attorneys for the California GOP.

“What we hear in terms of rhetoric is one thing, what we see in practice is another,” Padilla said. “If these boxes reappear then we will act accordingly at that time.”

Becerra said his office would investigate Republican lawmakers’ tweets.

“While these tweets can be confusing or posts on social media can be misleading, when we act legally, we must act based on credible evidence,” Becerra said. 

Padilla and Becerra will also look into reports that Democratic Congressman Harley Rouda is operating ballot collection hubs in his district in Orange County.

“This is not about partisan advantage,” Padilla said. “It’s about integrity of the election and the rights of voters.”

California GOP spokesperson Hector Barajas said in a statement after the press conference that the party has made no concessions on its program.

“In fact, in two phones calls with 9 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,” Barajas said. “This is a thuggish voter intimidation and vote suppression tactic by our Democratic attorney general and secretary of state.”

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