An official ballot drop box is seen Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Santa Clarita, Calif. | AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
OAKLAND — After assailing Democrats’ ballot-collecting efforts for years, California Republicans have pivoted to a new strategy: If you can’t stop ‘em, join ‘em.
The state GOP has installed private ballot boxes in sympathetic venues — including gun shops and churches — with the idea of boosting Republican turnout. The boxes drew an immediate cease-and-desist order from the California attorney general and secretary of state, while the dispute has gone national as President Donald Trump urged California Republicans to “fight hard” while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has hinted at its own legal avenues to block them.
Democrats say the unauthorized boxes are not only against the law but confuse voters and invite fraud because ballot security can’t be assured. Republicans are using the situation to accuse Democrats of voting rights hypocrisy, saying they are only doing what Democrats perfected en route to sweeping gains in the 2018 midterms — providing a free delivery service to voters.
“It’s pretty clear that Democrats only care about ballot harvesting when someone else is doing it,” California Republican Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson said this week.
The feud comes as California has mailed ballots to its 21 million registered voters as a coronavirus precaution to deter long lines at polling places. While California’s presidential choice is a foregone conclusion, Republicans are looking to take back some of the congressional seats that Democrats won two years ago, when the GOP was left with only seven of 53 seats in the nation’s largest delegation.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a former Democratic congressman, could soon attempt to prosecute Republicans for ignoring his cease-and-desist order. “It is illegal, but more than just illegal, it is irresponsible to tamper with a citizen’s vote,” he said this week.
Republicans this week were primed for a fight — which could enable them to hammer California’s ballot collection laws and sow doubt in the blue state’s election integrity as Trump has tried to do for months.
Behind the brewing legal battle is a nationally reverberating dispute over a 2016 California law authorizing third parties to collect filled-out mail ballots from voters and submit them to elections officials. Republicans here and in Washington have excoriated the process, saying it’s susceptible to fraud and allows liberals to manipulate election outcomes (a House Republican study raised security concerns but found no concrete instances of fraud in California).
After California Democrats swept competitive House contests in 2018, some California Republicans conceded that they had no choice but to match their counterparts by embracing the tactic. In leaked audio, National Republican Congressional Committee chair Rep. Tom Emmer said Republicans had to adapt after getting “their clocks cleaned.”
This week’s drama shows the party further embracing that change. In doing so, Republicans are trying to paint Democrats as hypocrites wielding a partisan double standard when it comes to election tactics. The party is “going to be ballot harvesting throughout the entire state,” Millan Patterson said.
That stance has echoed to the highest levels of national politics. Trump has constantly assailed California’s voting rules, but this week he repeatedly urged California Republicans to charge ahead, asserting on Twitter that Democrats have “been taking advantage of the system for years!”
California Republicans have acknowledged placing the boxes in three large counties that contain the most contested House races of 2020. And they’re exploring a similar tactic in other states that allow third-party ballot collection, albeit with more constraints than in California.
“Chairman Emmer has said repeatedly that anywhere Democrats have legalized ballot harvesting Republicans will play by the same rules those Democrats put in place,” NRCC spokesperson Torunn Sinclair said in a statement.
California is one of 26 states that allow a voter to designate someone to deliver their ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state has some the most relaxed laws on third-party collection based on the NCSL database; 12 states, for instance, limit the number of ballots that one person can collect to deter coordinated campaign efforts. California does prohibit payment for ballot collection
Rick Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at the University of California, Irvine, cited two potential “overlapping rationales” for California Republicans’ strategy.
“Number one is they’re trying to thread the needle between Trump’s claims of fraud with mail-in ballots and the reality that Republicans in California like elsewhere have long relied on vote by mail,” Hasen said, “and the other possibility is it’s a way of trying to highlight the Democrats’ laws that allow for ballot harvesting and to highlight the insecurity of the practice.”
Hasen said he supports curtailing California’s voter-collection law, such as limiting the number of ballots any given person can pick up and deliver. But he argued Republicans are pursuing a “bone-headed means of getting out the vote” given the potential for people tampering with the boxes.
“It just doesn’t seem like a very smart way to get out the vote,” Hasen said. “It would be far better for them to go door-to-door to Republican households.”
Republicans say a 2018 California law frees them from requirements that ballot collectors supply information like their relationship to voters. They argue that the drop boxes were never intended to emulate official state-issued collection hubs, saying a box seen on social media was erroneously labeled “official” and that the mistake was swiftly corrected. They have committed to supervising boxes and returning ballots to elections officials as the law requires. Those claims will be vetted in court.
In the meantime, Democrats have blasted away at their counterparts. Gov. Gavin Newsom has repeatedly accused the GOP of seeking to sow confusion, tweeting that the party’s willingness to “lie, cheat, and threaten our democracy” is a tactic that “reeks of desperation.” The DCCC has weighed in, with elections super-litigator Marc Elias raising the prospect of “voting rights court actions to protect voters.”
But the boxes could yield more political benefits than simply securing more conservative votes. The burgeoning controversy also allows Republicans to accuse Democrats of betraying their stated commitment to expanded voter access.
That has produced some through-the-looking-glass moments. For years, Democrats have championed making voting as easy as possible and accused the GOP of trying to discourage turnout, while Republicans have warned of fraud in a state where they have been losing voter share for years. This week, Assembly Republican Leader Marie Waldron inverted that dynamic by framing the issue on Twitter as “Republicans trying to expand voter access; Dems trying to suppress votes.”
“The program you now falsely claim to be illegal is a perfect example of what you ‘proudly’ stated to be permissible just last year,” the California Republican Party wrote Secretary of State Alex Padilla in rejecting his cease-and-desist order, alluding to Padilla praising California’s third-party ballot collection.
Republicans say they would happily disarm if Democrats do the same by passing a law that prohibits “ballot harvesting.” But Republican legislation to restrict the process has failed in the state Legislature, where Democrats command GOP-proof two-thirds majorities.
And they have steadfastly denied that the boxes were an attempt to generate a national controversy.
“I only wish we were that diabolical. We aren’t,” said Harmeet Dhillon, national committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California.
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