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California's chief elections official on Monday ordered Republicans to remove unofficial, illegal ballot drop boxes from churches, gun shops and other locations and Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned those behind the "vote tampering" could face prosecution.
The collection bins were not authorized by any elections office and, in some cases, were simple cardboard boxes with no locking security mechanism.
It turns out, the local Republican parties in several counties, including at least Fresno, Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties, came together to place boxes at Republican-friendly locations to collect ballots, and they even announced their plans online. Those drop-off locations included local Republican party offices, candidate headquarters, gun stores and churches.
Republicans say their collection of ballots is no different than the practice of "ballot harvesting" where a third party collects signed ballot envelopes.
"Because ballot harvesting is legal, we wanted to be open about it," says Fresno County GOP Chairman Fred Vanderhoof. "We let people know on Facebook and social media that they could drop their ballot at a secure ballot box and we'll take it down for them."
Ballot harvesting is used in some cases where voters lack transportation, are elderly or disabled or are in the hospital, and the third party must sign the ballot as a witness. Because the unofficial ballot boxes are unmanned, the state says it's not the same as ballot harvesting.
Local GOP places unauthorized ballot dropboxes around Fresno area
Secretary of State Alex Padilla says it's illegal to put out unofficial ballot boxes and collect votes, even though it is legal to turn in someone else's ballot.
"Today, the Secretary of State's office, jointly with the (California) Department of Justice, issued a cease and desist order to the California Republican party to remove these dropboxes," Padilla said.
The individuals responsible for putting out the boxes have until Thursday to comply with the cease and desist order.
Padilla reminded voters only to use official ballot drop boxes deployed and secured by a county elections office.
Becerra says those who choose to leave boxes out, knowing it is against state law, are at risk of criminal or civil charges.
In addition to the boxes in Fresno County, a regional field director for the California Republican Party in Orange County posted a photo to social media showing with a box labeled "official ballot drop off box" and encouraged voters to message him for "convenient locations" to drop their ballots.
The Associated Press also reported that there was a similar box at a church in the Los Angeles County community of Castaic. The church posted on social media the box was "approved and brought by the GOP."
Another church, Grace Baptist in Santa Clarita reported a dropbox was placed in front of the church and they were led to believe it was a nonpartisan effort and the ballots would be brought straight to the registrar's office.
"As soon as there was any confusion or concern, we called them to remove the box," said Joe Keller, executive pastor of Grace Baptist church.
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In counties across the state, official drop boxes are clearly recognizable, carry the official county elections logo, and are designed to be very secure. Elections clerks from several counties say their signature check is the best form of security to ensure there's no fraud.
Vanderhoof said the boxes in Fresno County had been pulled, but he also called Padilla a hypocrite, accusing California Democrats of setting up the system to allow cheating through same-day registration, keeping inactive voters on the rolls, and ballot harvesting.
The California Republican Party also issued a statement defending the ballot boxes, "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. 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 Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. California Republicans would be happy to do away with ballot harvesting."
Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party in Orange County, said in a statement the fake boxes were an attempt at voter suppression.
"Voters need trust in our election system, and this latest attempt by senior Republicans only erodes that trust," she said.
To find early voting and vote-by-mail ballot drop off locations, visit https://caearlyvoting.sos.ca.gov/ and to make sure your vote is counted, visit https://wheresmyballot.sos.ca.gov/.