SANTA ANA (CNS) - Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra ordered the state Republican Party today to stop using unauthorized ballot collection boxes -- some of which were found in Los Angeles and Orange counties -- or face civil or criminal punishment.
The warnings and cease-and-desist orders stemmed from complaints surfacing this weekend out of Orange, Los Angeles and Fresno counties about unofficial ballot collection boxes.
State Republican Party officials argued that what they are doing is no different than so-called ballot harvesting, which allows organizations to collect ballots on behalf of individuals and submit them to election officials. But Padilla and Becerra disagreed.
“Unofficial, unauthorized ballot drop boxes are not permitted by state law,'' Padilla said, who called their use “misleading.''
Padilla sent a cease-and-desist order to Republican organizations in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties to remove the unauthorized ballot boxes. Becerra warned of consequences for those who fail to heed the order.
“We're getting some disturbing reports that perhaps some Republican Party officials in the state where these fake drop boxes have been situated may not be prepared or willing to remove these drop boxes,'' Becerra said. “We hope the message goes out loud and clear that anyone who improperly solicits or manages a citizen's vote is subject to prosecution for engaging in activities that are against the law in the state of California. I'm trying to be careful how I say this but the reports we're hearing are disturbing.''
Padilla said the unofficial drop boxes are not the same as authorized ones because the legal ones have been constructed in a way to ensure the safety of the ballot. He said his office will do its best to count every ballot no matter where it came from, but he said unofficial drop boxes can undermine public confidence in the election.
When a voter cannot manage to put a ballot in the mail or drop one off at an elections office or drop box, the voter can authorize someone to do it for them, but the voter and the carrier of the vote must sign the envelope containing the ballot, Padilla said.
Earlier Monday, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said his office will investigate counterfeit ballot collection boxes found in at least two area cities.
Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley told City News Service his staff was alerted over the weekend through social media posts about the unauthorized ballot collection boxes and immediately began investigating.
“Sounds like maybe half a dozen, but I don't know for sure,'' Kelley said of the number of boxes recovered. “We had a report of one in Seal Beach that was a cardboard box.''
Kelley added, “The good news is we got the word out and there was a rapid response to it all.''
Spitzer said his office was alerted on Sunday.
“We have an open investigation,'' Spitzer told CNS. “It was given to us yesterday by Neal Kelley and I can't comment on a pending investigation, but we're acknowledging it. My office is charged with investigating all allegations of fraud and elections violations and obviously our biggest concern is voter fraud and voter intimidation and protecting the vote so we'll look at this scenario.''
Spitzer added, “I don't really know what the evidence is at this point, because we literally got it yesterday, but we have boots on the ground (investigating).''
In one social media post, a supporter of Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel's congressional campaign was seen touting the use of an unauthorized ballot collection box.
Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Newport Beach, issued a statement slamming his GOP challenger in the 48th Congressional District race.
“Michelle Steel is proving, yet again, that she is the most corrupt politician in Orange County,'' Rouda said in a statement Monday. “Orange County deserves a leader who will protect the integrity of our elections, not orchestrate voter fraud. This craven, illegal, and criminal behavior is disqualifying.''
Steel's campaign accused Rouda of attempting to “suppress the vote.''
“Harley Rouda is desperate to divert attention from the fact that he has recently been exposed for cutting his own employee's health care and retirement accounts and pushing higher taxes on Orange County families even though he doesn't pay his own,'' Steel said in a statement. “Now he wants to suppress the vote of honest churchgoers in Orange County. I don't condone any unofficial means of collecting ballots. Every vote counts, and we must ensure ballots are turned in and counted responsibly and legally.''
The state Republican Party issued a statement insisting the drop boxes were legal.
“In California, where you can have convicted felons and individuals with a criminal history go door to door and collect ballots from voters, Democrats are now upset because organizations, individuals and groups are offering an opportunity for their friends, family, and patrons to drop off their ballot with someone they know and trust,'' according to a statement from the California Republican Party. “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.
“If Democrats are so concerned with ballot harvesting, they are the ones who wrote the legislation, voted for it, and (former) Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law. California Republicans would be happy to do away with ballot harvesting.''
State GOP spokesman Hector Barajas added, “The Secretary of State's action is just a deflection from the mounting criticism for giving a non-budgeted, $35 million get-out-the-vote contract to a `Team Biden' PR firm, which is also receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose Republican candidates in targeted California districts.''
Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, who chairs the senate committee on elections and constitutional amendments, criticized the use of the unauthorized drop boxes.
“Local prosecuting agencies will have the full support of the state when pursuing and prosecuting the criminal activity of committing voter fraud, such as the setting up of these unofficial and unauthorized ballot boxes,'' Umberg said. “Those setting up these boxes in an attempt to misrepresent themselves as election officials and subvert our democracy must be punished.''
Umberg said anyone wanting to find a valid drop-off location should check with the Secretary of State's website athttps://caearlyvoting.sos.ca.gov/.
Spitzer said his investigators will consider whether the use of the ballot boxes was intentionally fraudulent or just ignorance of the law.
“The question is what's the intent?'' Spitzer said. “Why did someone do it? What's the intent behind it? Were they up to mischief?''
Spitzer pointed out, “You have to designate someone to return your ballot, so you can't just throw them in a box.''
Kelley said any voter concerned about whether they are dropping their votes off in an authorized collection box can go to www.ocvote/options and find locations where bona fide ballot boxes are placed.
“They are large, thousand-pound boxes that are white with yellow gold trim that says `official drop box' and has the county seal and election logo,'' Kelley said. “You can't miss them.''
The collection boxes are popular this year, Kelley said.
“Tens of thousands of voters have been using those boxes,'' Kelley said of the legitimate ones.
“We're 450% ahead of this same point in 2016,'' he said. “I've never seen anything like it. A couple of days after mailing the ballots they're being returned. That's unheard of.''
Last Monday, Spitzer, Kelley and Padilla held a news conference to reassure voters they will do everything they can to combat vote fraud.
“Every eligible vote is going to be counted and nothing can get in the way of an eligible voter's right to vote,'' Spitzer said.
Kelley's office has trained investigators from the District Attorney's Office and the investigators are in turn training all law enforcement officers in the county to be on the lookout for electioneering or other fraud at the polls. Their job will be to “keep the peace until an election expert can get there'' and sort through any allegations, Spitzer said.
Kelley said police officers have been issued pocket cards with the criminal codes for election crimes.
“We created a pocket card in 2018 for patrol officers to carry around,'' Kelley said. “They don't respond to election crime every day of the week, so it was super popular. We're doing it again for this election.''
Kelley said the pocket cards are helpful if, for instance, someone impersonates an election official.
“That's an obscure crime so they can pull that out and see that it is actually a crime,'' Kelley said. “And then we can respond and interface with law enforcement and assist and bring in the District Attorney if necessary.''
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