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Standoff over GOP ballot drop boxes hits House races in California

Republicans say unsanctioned boxes are legal form of ‘ballot harvesting’

Both parties in California are in a standoff over the state GOP’s decision to place ballot drop boxes in some of the most competitive House districts, with Democrats accusing Republicans of breaking the law. 

“My opponent and the GOP are clearly engaging in heinous and illegal acts of election fraud,” freshman Democrat Harley Rouda told reporters Wednesday. Rouda faces Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel in the 48th District along the Orange County coast. 

The state GOP has reportedly placed 50 boxes labeled as “official” drop boxes for ballots, which have been mailed to California voters ahead of the November election. Republicans say this practice complies with state law that allows for a third party to collect ballots, also known as ballot harvesting. But Democrats, including top state officials, say the move violates state law, which stipulates that voters must acknowledge who specifically is handling their ballots and that ballot drop boxes must be administered by county election officials. 

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a cease-and-desist letter Monday to the state and county-level Republican parties, giving them until Thursday to remove the drop boxes. 

Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the state GOP, told NPR on Tuesday that the boxes will remain in place, though the “official” label would be removed from some of them. 

“We are ready to go to court over this,” Barajas said. 

President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday that Republicans should “fight hard” on the issue. On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee came to the state party’s defense. 

“Ballot harvesting is legal in the state of California, Democrats legalized it, and it is clear with these ballot boxes Republicans are following the laws Democrats put in place,” California GOP Rep. Ken Calvert, a deputy chairman at the NRCC, said in a statement.

“In the face of voter suppression attempts by California Democrats, Republicans have and will continue to be steadfast in defending Californians’ voting rights,” Calvert said.

Marc Elias, legal counsel for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told reporters Wednesday that Democrats would be closely watching how law enforcement handles the issue. 

“All options remain on the table,” Elias said when asked if the DCCC was considering filing a lawsuit. 

Focus on House battlegrounds 

Elias noted the drop boxes appear to be mainly found in four House districts that Democrats flipped in 2018: the 10th and 21st districts in the Central Valley, the 25th District north of Los Angeles, and the 48th District. (Republicans have since taken back the 25th District after Mike Garcia won a May special election.)

The Democratic nominees in three of those districts, including Rouda, slammed the GOP ballot boxes in a press call with Elias. 

State Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who is challenging Garcia, called the GOP’s actions “absolutely shameful.” Garcia defeated Smith in the May race to succeed Democrat Katie Hill, who resigned last year.

Rep. TJ Cox, who is facing a rematch against former GOP Rep. David Valadao in the 21st District, criticized his opponent for not speaking out. 

“His silence, while others perpetrate fraud on his behalf, underlines exactly why voters rejected him in 2018,” Cox said.

Valadao’s campaign responded with a statement Wednesday afternoon that did not address whether he thought the GOP’s effort was legal.

“It is critical that voters are confident their vote is going to be counted fairly, accurately and securely,” Valadao said. “I hope that both Republicans and Democrats follow the law when it comes to collecting and turning in ballots in California and across the country.”

On Monday, Steel said, “I don’t condone any unofficial means of collecting ballots.” But on Wednesday, she noted that ballot harvesting is legal and said she has “no issue with ensuring that there are increased options to voting, particularly for churchgoers and minority communities.”

Asked about ballot harvesting in April, Steel told talk radio host Larry O’Connor, “We do everything legally.”

Garcia campaign spokesman Lance Trover said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that the congressman “disagrees with any misrepresentation of official methods of voting or changing the rules at the last minute.”

But the Democrats suggested their Republican opponents must have known about the plan to place ballot drop boxes at various locations. Rouda noted that one ballot box was placed in front of a location with Steel campaign signs, while Smith said ballot boxes in her district were placed at locations connected to Garcia’s campaign. 

Trover did not immediately respond to a question about whether Garcia knew about the state party’s drop boxes. Ahead of the May special election, Garcia did acknowledge his campaign was looking into collecting ballots, according to Politico. “It sounds dirty, feels dirty, sounds illegal, but it’s completely legal,” he said in January.

Other party leaders, including Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have decried ballot harvesting.

McCarthy said in a May statement, following a House Administration Committee report on the issue, that “ballot harvesting invites fraud and abuse.” His campaign did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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