California elections officials on Monday demanded Republican campaign officials stop using private ballot collection containers marked as “official” drop-boxes, saying that the do-it-yourself boxes are illegal under state law.
A spokesman for the California Republican Party rejected the allegation, insisting the practice is allowed under a 2016 state law that allows a voter to designate any person to collect a completed ballot and return it to election officials, a polling place or vote center, or a secure vote-by-mail drop box.
Questions were first raised over the weekend, when a Newport Beach Republican official posted a photo of himself on Twitter posing next to a metal delivery box, the size of an office filing cabinet, marked “official ballot drop off box.” The container was not, however, provided or overseen by Orange County elections officials.
“[Direct message] me for convenient locations to drop your ballot off,” wrote Jordan Tygh, a regional field director for the California Republican Party.
Twitter has since taken down Tygh’s posting, replacing it with a note saying the message violated the company’s rules.
Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said it is unclear how many similar boxes are being used or their locations.
“Voters who want to return their ballot at a drop box should only use official county drop boxes,” Kelley said. “Official ballot drop boxes are clearly recognizable, designed to meet state standards for security, and bear the official Orange County elections logo.”
Tygh did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The Orange County District Attorney’s office is investigating the situation, said press information officer Kimberly Edds.
“We’re still in our legal review and we haven’t made a determination, but there are strict restrictions on what governs an official ballot box,” she said.
State elections officials on Sunday said the boxes are prohibited by California law. A five-page memorandum sent to county elections offices from Jana Lean, chief of the secretary of state’s enforcement division, said the receptacles were not consistent with ballot collection rules.
“County elections officials alone have the authority to designate the location, hours of operation, and number of drop boxes in the county,” Lean wrote, “and have the responsibility for ensuring compliance with all applicable statutes and regulations that guarantee the security and chain of custody of vote-by-mail ballots deposited.”
A variety of other private collection boxes were identified over the weekend on social media, prompting complaints from Democrats and others. A box similar to the one that Tygh posed with was reported outside of a church in Castaic. And photos from Fresno depicted a sign promising a “secure ballot drop off location” that was not one provided by the county’s elections office.
In an election in which more than 21 million registered voters have been mailed a ballot, the proper procedures for casting and submitting an absentee ballot have taken on new urgency, alongside an array of concerns about whether the U.S. Postal Service will deliver ballots on time to be counted. Many Californians unfamiliar with the process will also be casting a vote by mail for the first time.
Every county offers voters locations to return a completed ballot, using heavy-duty and tightly locked drop boxes that must meet a variety of state-specific regulations. Local elections officials mailed voters a list of these locations, along with the hours of operation for collection boxes inside businesses or other buildings, at the same time as sending out sample ballots and voter guides.
But Republicans argue the 2016 law allowing anyone to collect ballots makes the practice 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,” Hector Barajas, a party spokesman, said in a written statement. “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.”
The law in question replaced a previous rule limiting ballot delivery to a family member or someone living in the same household and explicitly prohibited collection by political parties and campaigns. Republicans, in particular, have criticized the law by mocking it as “ballot harvesting.”
The official ballot envelope still requires the name and signature of the person who has been authorized to return it for the voter. While a ballot will be counted even if the person returning it isn’t identified, local elections officials could use that information to investigate any irregularities — concerns that would be less likely to arise if the ballot is placed in an official, county-provided drop box.
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