A lawyer representing California’s Republican Party said in a letter Wednesday that it plans to continue collecting ballots in controversial unofficial ballot boxes placed at businesses and party headquarters throughout the state in defiance of a cease-and-desist order by the state's attorney general, whose office confirmed receiving the letter.
"Voters have decided, for themselves, that they trust the staff and volunteers at their local political Party headquarters, or their church, or a business that they patronize, to securely deliver their completed [vote-by-mail] ballot to the appropriate election official,” said the letter, which was first shared by CBS News.
In at least four counties in Southern California, the state GOP recently placed unauthorized ballot drop boxes — some of which were wrongly labeled as official or authorized ballot drop boxes — in churches, businesses, and party headquarters.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said at a press conference Monday that the use of unauthorized drop boxes to collect ballots is not permitted. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra warned that his office would consider pursuing civil or criminal action against people engaging in or encouraging the use of fraudulent ballot boxes.
The GOP is arguing that there is no difference between the use of unauthorized ballot boxes and ballot collection, sometimes called ballot harvesting, the process by which ballots are picked up and delivered by third parties, which became legal in California in 2016.
But the California authorities say that’s not true; the law requires the person entrusted to deliver the ballots to sign the envelope. When the ballots are dropped in an unofficial ballot collection box, officials argue, they are not signed by anyone at the time.
The California GOP’s general counsel, Thomas Hiltachk, told CBS News that stickers saying the party’s ballot drop boxes were “authorized” had been placed there in error. He said in his letter to the attorney general that going forward the unauthorized drop boxes would not be inaccurately labeled and would be secured indoors, rather than outdoors.
The secretary of state’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the GOP will be permitted to replace its ballot boxes.
The state party also did not respond to a request for comment on this update, but it told BuzzFeed News on Monday that it did not plan to comply with the state’s order to remove the boxes.
Some of the boxes, however, were removed, including several in Fresno County and one outside a Catholic church in Simi Valley, California, according to people who had seen them.
Pastor Jerry Cook of Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Los Angeles County encouraged his congregation to use the unauthorized ballot box the California GOP delivered to his church, which was removed earlier this week. In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Cook was asked by a parishioner why he agreed to place one of the boxes at the church and encouraged the congregation to use it when it wasn’t an official ballot box.
“The ballot box came from the California GOP. It’s been in the news as of late,” Cook wrote on Tuesday. “The GOP has taken the ‘authorizes’ sticker off and replaced it with Ballot Box. But by this Thursday (per our Secretary of State) the box will be returned.”
Cook did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Fresno County GOP President Fred Vanderhoof — who had distributed some of the boxes to businesses, including smog testing shops, gun clubs, and camping stores, before collecting them on Monday — said he wasn’t sure how long it would take before the GOP started replacing the unauthorized ballot boxes in Fresno County. A list of the locations of the unauthorized drop boxes was removed from the Fresno County GOP's website earlier this week and has not been replaced.
"We are looking into it,” Vanderhoof told BuzzFeed News. “We have to talk to our attorneys and get some direction on that. It may take one day. It may take several days.”
Vanderhoof said any ballots he collected were returned to the election committee but declined to say specifically where.
In the letter to the attorney general’s office, attorneys for the California Republican Party said the ballots collected in the boxes had been “delivered timely to the appropriate election official as the law commands.”
On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump weighed in on the dispute via Twitter, saying, “See you in court!” He encouraged supporters in New York and Illinois to follow the California GOP’s example.