SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Though it has used the tactic in recent elections, the California Republican Party on Wednesday sued state officials to ban “ballot harvesting” in the upcoming runoff for the seat of former Democratic Representative Katie Hill.
In a lawsuit filed in Superior Court against Governor Gavin Newsom and other officials, the party claims allowing campaign workers and volunteers to go door-to-door to collect ballots conflicts with the statewide shelter-in-place order caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The complaint accuses Newsom of “dodging” the party’s requests for clarity as to whether the practice should be allowed in a pair of May 12 special elections.
Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson blasted Newsom in a statement and accused him of “putting Californians’ lives at risk” by not explicitly barring the practice.
“Gov. Newsom has told Californians that they can’t open their businesses, their kids can’t go to school, and they can’t attend family events including weddings and funerals,” Patterson said. “If we can’t see our mothers on Mother’s Day, then strangers shouldn’t be visiting our homes to collect ballots.”
The party is hoping to rebuild in the soundly blue state where it hasn’t won a statewide election in over a decade and is outnumbered by both Democratic and independent voters. Republicans are hoping the resurgence can start next month by winning back a seat in both Congress and the state Senate.
The party has tapped its former vice chairwoman and vocal Newsom critic Harmeet Dhillon to do its election bidding.
Dhillon, who over the last several weeks has argued in court to overturn Newsom’s statewide order and allow resumption of church services and protests, is now arguing state Republicans are worried about potentially breaking the order by collecting absentee ballots.
“Based on daily, dire health warnings by Gov. Newsom, some California GOP workers are reluctant to violate the governor’s directives,” states the 14-page lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court.
According to the lawsuit, the party sent Newsom a letter on April 15 asking for clarification that the collection of ballots violates the stay-at-home order but has yet to get a response. It claims Newsom and Secretary of State Alex Padilla have used contradictory language and that it could lead to an uneven playing field if Democrats “ballot harvest” but Republicans don’t.
“Defendants have injected confusion and uncertainty into an election taking place in this most confusing and uncertain of times in modern history,” the complaint continues.
Padilla, who is also named along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra, defended the practice which is legal under state law.
“This is nothing more than a cynical political ploy to strip citizens of their freedom to choose, for themselves, who they trust to return their vote-by-mail ballots,” the Democrat said in a statement. “A pandemic is no time to make it harder for citizens to cast their vote-by-mail ballots.”
Mary-Beth Moylan, associate dean at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, noted the lack of existing case law and says a judge could ultimately rule the case isn’t ripe to be heard.
“Courts generally will shy away from making declaratory judgments, they want to see if there’s actually a problem,” said Moylan who formerly worked for a political law firm.
The lawsuit also raises the possibility of volunteers being fined for collecting ballots and dropping them off at vote centers. It details recent examples of a surfer and businesses being cited for violating shelter-in-place orders and states the party is “unable to ascertain” whether ballot harvesting is considered essential or not.
But Moylan says the GOP’s argument falls short, as beaches and businesses were explicitly closed under the orders and adds that it’s unlikely law enforcement on Election Day will cite people for dropping off ballots.
“The vote centers are going to be open…that kind of kills the comparison,” she said.
Competing for Hill’s vacated seat in California’s 25th Congressional District are Republican businessman Mike Garcia and Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith. Smith received 35% of the vote and Garcia 25% in the March primary.
In 2018, Hill defeated incumbent Stephen Knight as part of the Democrats’ blue wave and pundits predict the special election will be closely contested.
Meanwhile in California Senate District 28, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez is running off against Democrat Elizabeth Romero. Melendez finished with 40% of the vote in the March primary, compared to Romero’s 23%.
Patterson and the state Republicans argue it’s up to a judge to ensure the fairness of the special election in lieu of the state’s abdicating.
“The governor’s stay-at-home order clearly prohibits ballot harvesting, and we are asking him to break his silence and prohibit the practice ahead of California’s special elections,” Patterson said.