California Republicans embrace illegal ballot harvesting after Trump and the GOP spent months decrying the practice

  • The California Republican Party doubled down on its use of unauthorized ballot dropboxes, in violation of state law, shortly before state officials issued cease-and-desist orders compelling them to stop. 

  • Election officials are investigating and addressing multiple instances in Los Angeles, Orange, and Fresno Counties of Republicans setting up unauthorized drop boxes for their voters' mail ballots. 
  • The state Republican Party defended itself on Twitter by citing California's expansive ballot collection laws, but officials noted that state law clearly prohibits drop boxes not established by election officials. 
  • California Republicans have also put themselves directly at odds with the messaging of President Trump and the RNC, who have forcefully opposed ballot harvesting efforts.
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The California Republican Party doubled down on its use of unauthorized ballot dropboxes, in violation of state law, shortly before state officials issued cease-and-desist orders against them in the matter. 

On Sunday evening, news outlets including the Orange County Register and CBS Los Angeles reported that local election officials in parts of the state including Orange County, Los Angeles County, and Fresno were investigating reports of Republican officials possibly confusing voters by setting up unofficial dropboxes. 

In a now-deleted tweet, a California Republican Party regional field director Jordan Tygh posted a photo of himself holding his mail ballot in front of a box with a laminated sign taped to it that said "official ballot drop-off box" and "no postage necessary" on it while wearing a mask with the logo of Republican congressional candidate Michelle Steel. 

 

In a Monday press conference, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced they issued formal cease-and-desist orders to both the state Republican Party and county-level Republican parties in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Oranges Counties in connection with the dropboxes. Padilla said state officials are also sending guidance to political parties reminding them of the rules around ballot collection. 

"Misleading voters is wrong, regardless of who is doing it," Padilla said in the press conference. "Political campaigns and parties can engage in get-out-the-vote efforts, but they cannot violate state law." 

California has expansive laws around both mail voting and third-party ballot collection, laws that both political parties have benefited from in recent election cycles. And on Twitter, the state Republican Party stood behind putting up the dropboxes, citing a state law passed in 2016 expanding ballot collection, and arguing that the party-run boxes would give voters another layer of reassurance that their vote would be counted. 

"If a congregation/business or other group provides the option to its parishioners/associates/ or colleagues to drop off their ballot in a safe location, with people they trust, rather than handing it over to a stranger who knocks on their door — what is wrong with that?" they tweeted.

The California GOP is correct in pointing out that any individual person may return an unlimited number of other voters' ballots under state law.

However, those returning ballots must properly sign for those voters' ballots and follow the legal procedures to safely return them, and setting up unauthorized and unmonitored third-party drop boxes to collect ballots is not legal in California.

In a memorandum released Sunday, Padilla's office clarified that not only does state law ban the use of unauthorized, unofficial drop boxes that are not put in place and regulated by government election officials, but setting up those boxes also violates the regulations governing the collection of ballots. 

Republican Party operatives can deliver other voters' ballots, but the voter must directly designate a specific person to return their ballot, and the returner has to affix their name, signature, and relation to the voter on the outer envelope. 

Some commentators originally suggested that the unauthorized drop boxes could be a cynical attempt on the part of the GOP to feed into some of the misinformation suggesting that fraud is rampant. But the entire episode appeared more like a real attempt at encouraging Republican voters who may be skeptical of mail voting to return their ballots gone wrong. 

"This looks more like paranoia about returning absentee ballots than an attempt at fraud," Rick Hasen, a leading election law expert at the University of California-Irvine, located in Orange County, told Insider in an email. "It is ironic though that the GOP has set up a massive ballot harvesting operation, even though they are not calling it that."

In addition to risking legal consequences, the state GOP has also put itself directly at odds with the messaging on election security of national Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who frequently point to third-party ballot collection as inherently suspicious and the ultimate encapsulation of the dangers of lax voting rules. 

"GET RID OF BALLOT HARVESTING, IT IS RAMPANT WITH FRAUD. THE USA MUST HAVE VOTER I.D., THE ONLY WAY TO GET AN HONEST COUNT!," Trump wrote in an all-caps tweet in April. (There is no scholarly evidence that voter identification laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud.) 

And in September, Trump celebrated a court ruling in Pennsylvania limiting third-party ballot collection in a tweet that decried "the atrocious Ballot Harvesting Scam."

The Republican National Committee, in particular, has been at the forefront of the legal fights to limit third-party ballot collection.

The organization calls ballot harvesting "unacceptable" on its website ProtectTheVote.org, which summarizes its ongoing election-related litigation, and lists it as one of its top priorities to stop.

The phrase "ballot harvesting" appears 23 times alone on the website, which identifies seven states where the RNC legal team has fought in court to limit third-party ballot collection. 

But on Monday, the organization did not rush to condemn the California GOP's tactics. 

"We are continuing to fight Democrats' efforts to expand ballot harvesting, but we are not going to let them have an artificial advantage in places where it is legal," RNC Spokeswoman Mandi Merritt told Insider in an email. The California Democratic Party is notably not, however, similarly installing unauthorized drop boxes to collect ballots. 

The Trump campaign, which also forcefully opposed ballot harvesting and has been a party to litigation to restrict the practice, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider. 

And the National Republican Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, appeared to defend the practice, tweeting in response to Steel's opponent, first-term Democrat Rep. Harley Rouda: "Looks like Junior here is only ok with ballot harvesting when it's the Democrats ballot harvesting. Go back to the beach, bro." 

The California Republican Party openly embracing a practice decried as the height of fraud and dirty tricks by the national GOP is just the latest example of a Republican campaign breaking with Trump's hardline rhetoric supporting election restrictions. 

Throughout this year, even as Trump and other top Republicans have publicly (and falsely) lambasted mail voting as inherently fraudulent and untrustworthy, the Trump campaign and other GOP groups have encouraged their voters, through mailers and robocalls, to take advantage of no-excuse mail voting in the states that allow it. 

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