California allows Republican ballot boxes with safeguards

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A California mail-in ballot shows the portion where the voter would have to authorize another person to deposit it on their behalf. | Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

OAKLAND — California officials lowered the temperature Friday in their legal standoff with the California Republican Party over its unauthorized ballot boxes, saying the party had committed to enough changes for now to satisfy their concerns.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said the state GOP had agreed to “no longer deploy these unstaffed, unsecured and unofficial ballot drop boxes.” The practice had drawn national interest as the major parties jockey for seats in California congressional battlegrounds that Democrats won in the 2018 midterms — and as Republicans continue to attack the state’s election system.

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In an earlier response to Padilla, the California Republican Party said it would continue to accept mail ballots at boxes but promised some safeguards: The boxes will be attended to whenever the public has access to them, and ballots will be secured and then delivered to elections officials within the required 72-hour frame, the party said. The party pledged to not represent those boxes as “official,” saying a volunteer had done so in error, while arguing that the process was legal due to a 2018 law that loosened collection requirements.

“If they want to continue ballot collection activity, that is legal in California, but they must abide by state law around the ballot collection program,” Padilla said.

Republicans said they had been vindicated Friday after facing a barrage of criticism from Democrats, some of whom suggested Republicans should be prosecuted for election crimes. The party says it intends to keep boxes at venues such as churches and gun shops. The boxes materialized in counties that span competitive House districts.

“The Secretary of State and Attorney General didn’t know the facts and didn’t bother to learn them before accusing us on Monday,” spokesperson Hector Barajas said in an emailed statement. “We can’t agree to not do something we weren’t doing to begin with. They could have shortened this press conference by simply saying ‘Sorry.’”

California law allows third parties to collect completed mail ballots from voters and then deliver them to election officials. Republicans have long derided that practice as “ballot harvesting,” but they now say they are simply matching Democrats by engaging in the tactic with drop boxes in Republican-friendly locations. Critics argue that Democratic volunteers have followed legal safeguards that the Republican boxes shirk.

Padilla said the state would continue to monitor the situation, while California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the state had subpoenaed GOP officials as part of an ongoing investigation and would “wait to see what the Republican Party does.”

“If there is any indication of state law being violated we will not hesitate to act on it immediately,” Padilla said.

After the California Republican Party this week said it placed unofficial ballot collection boxes in multiple counties, Becerra and Padilla sent the party cease-and-desist letters charging that the boxes violate election laws. The California Republican Party defied that request, saying they were acting within the law while accusing Democrats of hypocrisy.

The dispute has reverberated to the highest levels of both state and national politics. Gov. Gavin Newsom has blasted Republicans for seeking to “lie, cheat, and threaten our democracy,” while President Donald Trump has urged them on. The NRCC has backed up Republicans while the DCCC has accused them of manipulating the vote in competitive House districts and raised the prospect of legal action.

Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday the state GOP was “off the rails” with its unauthorized ballot boxes, calling it “Mickey Mouse stuff that, you know, has serious kind of effects.”

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