Fake Ballot Drop Boxes Have Popped Up In Southern California. They're Not Legal. (UPDATED)

Twitter user Rebecca Albarran posted this photo on Monday of an unofficial ballot drop box outside St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Simi Valley. (Screengrab from Twitter)

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UPDATED ON OCT. 13: Tuesday afternoon on NPR's All Things Considered, state GOP spokesman Hector Barajas said they "may actually be expanding the program ... We are ready to go to court over this because we're going to make sure that we protect the options for individuals to be able to turn in their ballots."

ORIGINAL STORY FROM OCT. 12:

The Orange County District Attorney is investigating unofficial ballot drop boxes set up at churches, political party offices and retail locations. The boxes, which also popped up in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, are labeled to resemble county-sanctioned containers, and some public officials have shared their locations, encouraging supporters to use them to cast their votes.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla sent a memo on Sunday to all county registrars statewide clarifying that fake drop boxes are illegal.

"In short, providing unauthorized, non-official vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes is prohibited by state law," Padilla said. The guidance adds a violation of the state's election code carries a penalty of up to four years in prison.

Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced at a joint press conference Monday afternoon that they sent a cease-and-desist letter to the California GOP and its chapters in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties. The order tells the party to remove the collection boxes by Thursday.

The California Republican Party admitted to placing the boxes. In an email, state GOP spokesman Hector Barajas said the party will "continue our ballot harvesting program and not allow the Secretary of State to suppress the vote."

Official ballot drop boxes are overseen by county elections officials and include security measures such as tamper-evident seals. While "ballot collection" or "ballot harvesting" is legal in California, it requires a person to sign over their ballot to an individual, who pledges to turn it in to election officials within 72 hours.

Some of the unofficial drop boxes have been spotted outside churches in North L.A. County, where Republican Congressman Mike Garcia and Demcratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith are locked in a contentious rematch for the 25th District seat that once belonged to Democrat Katie Hill.

Republican officials openly promoted use of the unofficial collection boxes. Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer, who has endorsed Garcia in the congressional race, shared a list of Antelope Valley churches on Facebook he said he had encouraged to participate in ballot collection.

"They are adding drop boxes at their places of worship for the convenience of their congregation and the community at large," Hofbauer wrote in a later-deleted post. (LAist has reached out to Mayor Hofbauer for his reaction to the Secretary of State's guidance.)

Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer shared locations of unofficial drop boxes at Antelope Valley churches on Facebook. The post has since been deleted. (Facebook screengrab)

Smith issued a statement that reads, in part:

The California Republican Party is peddling a massive, illegal and coordinated misinformation campaign to distract from our institutional, trusted voting processes. Californians need to know that voting by mail in California, whether by an official dropbox or by placing their signed and dated ballot in the mail, is safe and secure.

A box outside of Freedom's Way Baptist Church in Northwest L.A. County has since been removed. (LAist has reached out to Pastor Jerry Cook for comment.) The church is hosting a forum for Garcia on Nov. 1 and Cook expresses support for conservative views on social media. Rep. Garcia's campaign declined to comment for this story.

In Orange County, Registrar of Voters Neil Kelley says election personnel and law enforcement acted quickly to crack down on the fake ballot boxes.

"I can't speak to the open investigation." he said. "But I can tell you that people were notified pretty quickly. And we've gotten confirmation that these boxes have been removed."

Barajas shared a statement Monday from the state Republican Party downplaying the drop box controversy. It reads, in part:

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. 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' emailed statement also cites part of AB 306, the law that allows ballot collection by third parties, which says ballots cannot be disqualified solely because the person turning them in doesn't identify themselves or sign the voter's return envelope.

Orange County Republican congressional candidate Michelle Steel said in a statement that she doesn't condone unofficial means of collecting ballots, but accused her opponent, Democratic Congressman Harley Rouda, of using the drop boxes as a distraction from issues at the core of the race.

"Now he wants to suppress the vote of honest churchgoers in Orange County," said Steel, who is currently a county supervisor and is trying to flip the 48th District back to the Republican column after Rouda won the seat in 2018. "Every vote counts, and we must ensure ballots are turned in and counted responsibly and legally," she added.

Rouda blasted her on Twitter, calling the boxes a sign of corruption.

HOW SHOULD YOU CAST YOUR BALLOT?

There are several safe, legal options for casting your vote-by-mail ballot:

  • Turn it in at a designated drop-off location — like a vote center or a secure ballot drop-box.
  • Mail it back, no postage required. It must be postmarked on or before Election Day and arrive within 17 days of Nov. 3 to count.
  • Designate another person to turn in your ballot by filling out a special section on the return envelope.

To appoint another person to turn in your ballot, look for the section on your return envelope that lets you write their name and relationship to you. By law, this person cannot get paid to pick up your ballot and must turn it in to election officials within three days of collection.

An official L.A. County ballot drop box in Boyle Heights. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

In California, ballot harvesting has been legal since 2016, when former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law expanding the practice. Prior to that, voters could only ask a family or household member to turn in their ballots.

Third party ballot collection has drawn criticism for its potential for abuse, but defenders say it's necessary to ensure voting access for everyone. Democratic groups in Orange County used the practice successfully in the 2018 midterms, sending volunteers door-to-door or collecting ballots at rallies — so much so that California Republicans ramped up their ballot collection operation for 2020. But it seemed to come with reluctance: The state's Republican Party chair, Jessica Millan Patterson, briefly demanded Gov. Gavin Newsom ban ballot harvesting early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CA GOP statement provided to LAist indicates the party still supports banning ballot collection.

"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," the statement said. "California Republicans would be happy to do away with ballot harvesting."

Ballot collection did open the door to illegal tampering in a North Carolina congressional race in 2018, where a Republican political operative ran a scheme to collect, fill out and sometimes discard ballots. No such fraud has been discovered in California.

Meanwhile on Monday, the chair of the state Senate's committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments called for consequences. "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," Tom Umberg said in a statement. "Those setting up these boxes in an attempt to misrepresent themselves as election officials and subvert our Democracy must be punished."

We've reached out to the Los Angeles County D.A. to ask if the office has opened an investigation.

4:30 PM Monday: This story was updated with information about the cease and desist order sent to the CA GOP.

9:30 PM Monday: Update with CA Republican Party statement on continuing ballot harvesting activities.

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