In ballot box battle, Dems and GOP both claim victory. Why this fight fizzled.

By Ben Christopher,
CAL Matters,
October 16, 2020


In a press conference seemingly designed to deescalate a week-long legal standoff, declare victory and profoundly confuse the California press corps, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla said they would not be taking legal action against the California Republican Party for its makeshift ballot box program. 

But the two Democrats insisted that the GOP had changed policy in response to their warnings — a claim the Republicans denied. 

“We are not going to mother or shepherd someone through every day of activity, but what we are trying to do is make it clear what the law requires,” said Becerra, two days after he threatened the California Republican Party with criminal prosecution. 

“We are prepared to enforce those requirements of the law and we wait to see what the Republican Party does. Based on what we find the evidence to be in terms of their activities, that will determine what we do.”

When reporters noted that state Republican Party officials said that, in fact, they would be continuing on with their program as planned, the attorney general said that it was “the deeds not the words that count.” He also said that his office is issuing subpoenas and would continue to monitor the program.  

State GOP spokesperson Hector Barajas also declared a win: “If they had something, then something would have been charged today. There would have been an injunction or there would have been a lawsuit.”

He also said the party has not yet received a subpeona.

An “unfortunate sideshow”

With the president of the United States repeatedly sowing doubt about the security of voting by mail — despite evidence that improper voting is vanishingly rare — Becerra and Padilla stressed in both press conferences this week that their aggressive action against the state GOP was meant to preserve public confidence in the state election system. 

Hiltachk said it did just the opposite. “Had they simply just asked us, there would never have been a need for a press conference or a cease-and-desist letter,” he said.

But even if the party’s ballot boxes are kept inside, secure and monitored, one legal question remains. 

California election law states that ballot collectors should include their name, their relationship to the voter and their signature on the ballot envelope.

The Republican Party counters that because the law also instructs county officials not to disqualify a ballot solely for lacking that information, it isn’t illegal to set up a ballot collection operation that doesn’t require a signature.. 

“I wish there was a chain of custody requirement in the law, but there isn’t,” said Hiltachk.

The attorney general’s office declined to respond when asked whether operating a ballot collection program without a specific signature requirement would violate state election law. 

“To protect its integrity, we are unable to comment on an ongoing investigation,” a press spokesperson said in an email. 

The very technical debate over where and how a ballot envelope should be signed when transferred from a voter to a third party is based on a very real concern over election interference. In 2018, Republican operatives in North Carolina were charged with setting up an illegal “ballot harvesting” scheme in which they collected ballots from voters with a promise to deliver them, but then filled in unmarked down ballot races without the voters’ knowledge. When the scheme was uncovered, the state board of elections ordered the re-do of a congressional race.

Unlike in North Carolina, California voters are allowed to entrust their ballot to anyone for delivery. The signature requirement is meant to ensure that “someone is taking responsibility for that ballot,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. 

She called this week’s ballot box brouhaha “an unfortunate side show.”

“There are so many more important messages that voters need to be hearing right now,” she said. “To have to add to it, ‘don’t put your ballot in an unauthorized ballot box’ — that is not helpful.”

Voters can find a list of their local drop boxes and voter centers on the website of the California Secretary of State. Voters can also sign up to receive text or email notification when their ballot is sent, received and processed. (Full Story)