Jurisprudence

After Complaining About Voter Fraud, the California GOP Commits Election Fraud

Republican operatives set up ballot drop boxes with fake “official” labels on them. That’s illegal.

A man in a mask walks a dog on a leash beside a box that says, "OFFICIAL BALLOT DROP BOX."
Jake Tremblay walks his dog Eugene to cast his ballot at an official ballot drop box on Monday in Los Angeles, where election officials are looking into the use of unofficial ballot drop boxes installed by California’s Republican Party. Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

The Republican Party routinely insists that California is a hotbed of voter fraud. For proof, they point to the fact that voters are allowed to hand over their ballots to another person who submits them on their behalf. The California GOP decries this practice as “ballot harvesting” and attacks its legality to delegitimize election results. This year, some California Republicans went further: Some GOP operatives set up ballot drop boxes that are falsely marked “official,” encouraging voters to place their ballots in these phony boxes. These Republicans appear to have committed felony election fraud.

Over the weekend, the Orange County Register and KCAL broke the news that these official-looking drop boxes had cropped up in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Orange County outside campaign headquarters, churches, and businesses. The Fresno County Republican Party had a list of “Ballot Collection Box Locations” on its website that was removed sometime Monday morning. The list included multiple gun stores and firing ranges. On Friday, Jordan Tygh—a regional field director for the California Republican Party—tweeted (then deleted) a photo of himself holding his ballot next to a box labeled “OFFICIAL BALLOT DROP OFF BOX.” Tygh said he was “proud to have cast my vote” for Michelle Steel, who is challenging Democratic congressman Harley Rouda. He added: “DM me for convenient locations to drop your ballot off at!” But the box in Tygh’s photo was not “official,” even though it was plainly designed to look like one of California’s actual ballot drop boxes. (There are more than 400 in L.A. County alone.)

California GOP spokesman Hector Barajas acknowledged on Monday that the GOP owns the boxes but refused to say how many exist. Jared Cook, a pastor who set up an unofficial drop box outside his L.A. County Baptist church, seemed to confirm the party’s involvement when he told parishioners on Wednesday that “the local GOP picks up” the ballots “two to three times a week.” (Cook’s church has previously hosted Republican candidates and protested COVID-19 restrictions.)

After Democrats triumphed in California’s congressional elections two years ago, Republicans incorrectly blamed their losses on Democratic “ballot harvesting,” condemning the practice as shady and unethical. Yet this year, even as Donald Trump and many California Republicans continue to oppose the collection of ballots, some GOP candidates have embraced the strategy. David Valadao, a Republican running for California’s 21st Congressional District, said in September that because “ballot harvesting” is legal, “We’re going to have to do it ourselves. So we’ve got our own teams on the ground doing it.” Valadeo previously stated that “every Republican in the state has to be focused on ballot harvesting,” adding that it “is going to play a role” in GOP campaigns. Mike Garcia, a Republican running for reelection in California’s 25th Congressional District, declared in April: “How do you combat [ballot harvesting]? You do it yourself, right? It’s legal.” California Republican Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson also said the official state party position was that no campaign should collect ballots, though she admitted that Republicans collected ballots during the March primary.

Barajas, the GOP spokesman, said on Monday that “Democrats only seem to object to ballot harvesting when someone else does it.” On Twitter, the California GOP has similarly defended the ballot box scheme as lawful “ballot harvesting.” On Twitter, the party claimed that Democrats legalized this practice and asked “why people are all of a sudden surprised.” It also trolled critics of the scheme, suggesting that fake drop boxes are more secure than door-to-door ballot collection. The National Republican Congressional Committee tweeted that Rouda “is only ok with ballot harvesting when it’s the Democrats ballot harvesting.”

These comments suggest that Republicans do not understand how Democrats “harvest” ballots. The California Democratic Party hires both volunteers and paid staff to collect completed ballots directly from voters. These individuals cannot be paid per ballot under state law. They often focus on underserved communities whose members may face hardships that make it difficult for them to personally return their own ballot. Setting up drop boxes and falsely labeling them “official,” by contrast, is not legal “ballot harvesting.” It’s likely a criminal offense. California law strictly regulates the creation and use of ballot boxes and bars private citizens from establishing them. Moreover, the statute that allows third parties to collect ballots requires voters to formally “designate” the “person” who will return their ballot to election officials. This person must sign the ballot envelope and provide both their name and relationship to the voter. Republicans do not seem to have followed these rules when collecting ballots.

On Sunday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla issued guidance to county elections officials explaining that the fake ballot box scheme is “prohibited by state law.” He added that participants may be guilty of election fraud, a felony offense punishable by two to four years in prison. In an email on Monday, Padilla told me he is “coordinating with local officials to address the multiple reports of unauthorized ballot drop boxes.” He urged voters to “never hand your ballot over to someone you don’t trust.” Padilla, along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra, also sent a cease and desist order to the California Republican Party, as well as the county Republican parties of Fresno, Los Angeles, and Orange County—demanding that they remove their fake drop boxes. At a Monday press conference, Becerra warned that some Republican officials have indicated that they “may not be prepared or willing to remove those boxes.”*

Republicans have spent years accusing California Democrats of voter fraud without presenting an iota of evidence. Now they appear to have proved that election fraud is a real problem—by committing it themselves.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2020: This article originally misspelled Xavier Becerra’s first name.

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