California's Republican Party acknowledges owning unofficial ballot drop boxes

FILE - A ballot box inside Boston City Hall is available for residents to drop off their mail in ballots on Aug. 18, 2020. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

California’s Republican Party has acknowledged owning unofficial ballot drop boxes that state election officials say are illegal.

California election officials received reports this weekend about the boxes in Fresno, Los Angeles and Orange counties. On Sunday, the secretary of state issued a memo telling county registrars the boxes are illegal and ballots must be mailed or brought to official voting locations.

“In short, providing unauthorized, non-official vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes is prohibited by state law,” the memo said.

At a Monday news conference with both Secretary of State Alex Padilla and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, state officials said a cease and desist has been sent to California's Republican Party and to GOP officials in the three counties where the unofficial ballot boxes have been reported. 

"Misleading voters is wrong regardless of who's doing it," Padilla said. If those who are distributing the unofficial drop boxes refuse to comply with the cease and desist order, state officials said they would entertain all legal options to protect the integrity of the election and voters. 

State GOP spokesman Hector Barajas said Monday the party owns the boxes. He declined to say how many exist and where they are located. Barajas said the state’s law governing so-called ballot harvesting allows an organization to collect and return groups of ballots.

“Democrats only seem to object to ballot harvesting when someone else does it,” Barajas said.

Democrats have blasted the use of the unofficial boxes and say they fear Republicans could use them to gather and dispose of ballots.

The controversy surfaced after a regional field director for the state’s GOP in Orange County posed in a social media photo with one of the unofficial boxes and wearing a face mask supporting the congressional campaign of Michelle Steel, a county supervisor who is challenging Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda for his seat.

The practice of ballot harvesting involves people helping to turn in ballots for other voters. It is allowed in California under certain rules, and Democrats have been known to offer to deliver ballots for individuals who request it, said Shery Yang Wonnacott, a spokesperson for the state's Democratic Party. The party is concerned about the GOP using boxes that seem to pose as official collection sites, she said. 

There were reports of similar drop boxes at a church in the Los Angeles County community of Castaic and at various locations in Fresno County in California's farm-rich Central Valley, including party headquarters, a gas station and gun shops.

In Orange County, the district attorney is investigating at least two unofficial boxes in two different cities, said Kimberly Edds, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

Neal Kelley, the county’s registrar of voters, said official drop boxes are clearly recognizable and carry the official county elections logo. He said it wasn’t clear how many voters had used unofficial boxes but after receiving reports about them he notified the state and district attorney’s office.

Fresno County Republicans said they will remove the boxes and ballots will be turned in to county election officials, which was always the plan, the Sacramento Bee reported Party Chair Fred Vanderhoof saying.

Democrats criticized use of the boxes and said they want those using them held accountable. Rachel Potucek, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Orange County, said she didn't know what Republicans planned to do with the ballots they collected and worried they could target Democratic areas with boxes to suppress votes.

"Sadly, this is par for the course from the Republican Party -- well versed in making it harder, not easier for Californians to vote," Rusty Hicks, California Democratic Party Chair, said in a statement.

In the Bay Area an official drop box on Sycamore Valley Road in Danville was cause for concern Sunday when a voter found the box unlocked, and called it in.

Officials say a county worker had collected the ballots an hour before and mistakenly left the latch unlocked.

"We do make mistakes and when we do its embarrassing...I can say with a very high degree of certainty there was no funny business. Nothing happened. Voters can verify that for themselves by checking with us and verifying that we received their ballot," said Contra Costa County Registrar of Voters Scott Konopasek. 

Voters can verify which drop off boxes are legitimate by checking their voter information guide or county website. That's where they can find a list of the proper locations.

Elections and voter information:

KTVU contributed to this story.