California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra held a meandering and confusing press conference Friday morning to update reporters on the status of their showdown with the California Republican Party over the party’s private ballot drop boxes.
As we reported earlier in the week, the two sent the CAGOP and three county affiliates a cease and desist letter, demanding that the drop boxes be taken down and that they provide a list of all voters whose ballots had been collected so the Secretary of State’s office could contact the voters and make sure that they had turned the ballot in, and that the ballot hadn’t been returned fraudulently. Late Wednesday the CAGOP, through its attorney, Thomas W. Hiltachk, replied, essentially telling Padilla and Becerra to pound sand. (The letter is a masterpiece and worth a read.)
The thumbnail result is that since the two laws at issue, both authored by Asm. Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher (D-NotTooBright) are so vague and seemingly self-contradictory, and because at least one Democrat congressman in a battleground district has deployed 11 ballot drop boxes of his own, Padilla and Becerra really didn’t have a way to shut down the CAGOP’s plan.
Padilla and Becerra weren’t too clear in their press conference, as this live-tweet thread from LA Times Sacramento Bureau Chief John Myers illustrates:
Padilla: “The California Republican Party can conduct valid collection activities, but they have to play by the rules and follow state law.”
Well, it sounds like state officials basically are OK with GOP assurances that they’re securing the ballots.
“We are trying to make sure that the law is followed,” says Becerra. “We’re not going to mother, or shepherd them through every day of activity.”
So it sounds like there’s no kind of private drop box for ballots the state will allow, per @AGBecerra. “That is left to the county officials to do,” Becerra says.
Or maybe not. Asked very clearly by @libdenk if ALL private boxes are illegal, Becerra says in press event, “Rather than trying to answer a hypothetical. Let me tell you that we continue our investigation.”
On this now weeklong saga over GOP private dropboxes, we now have party and state elections officials talking past each other.
By state officials insisting that “unstaffed” drop boxes are illegal — and with GOP saying the boxes *are* staffed — we have, I think, status quo.
And yet, Padilla then again says: “only counties are authorized to provide valid drop boxes as an option for voters.”
The effect, I think, of all of this, is to leave everyone angry. Republicans think they’re being single out, Democrats likely angry the hammer’s not coming down.
Politico’s Jeremy B. White understood Padilla to say that the CAGOP had agreed to not utilize the boxes when Padilla said “they have agreed to ‘no longer deploy these unstaffed, unsecured, and unofficial ballot drop boxes.'” (Note that they did not use the word illegal there.) That was not the case. as Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) tweeted:
We’re still deploying the boxes.
They will of course be secure. https://t.co/uV5s5qu2gp
— Senator Melissa Melendez (@senatormelendez) October 16, 2020
To be fair, Padilla and Becerra were probably trying to save face just a bit, since their because their arguments and inflammatory rhetoric were utterly eviscerated by Hiltachk’s letter. He pointed out that despite the state’s insistence that the ballot harvester was required to sign each ballot harvested and state their voter, a clean-up bill passed in 2018 merely stated that there must be a place on the ballot return envelope for the harvester to sign, but that the ballot wouldn’t be invalidated if it wasn’t. So, that’s not a requirement.
Hiltachk also pointed out that the state’s assertion that a voter must hand their ballot over to the exact person who was going to deliver it to county elections officials isn’t contained within the law and that, in fact, according to documents obtained from the campaign of Democrat Rep. Harley Rouda, Rouda’s ballot harvesters are NOT the same people who ultimately deliver them to the county.
In addition, the CAGOP’s practice of keeping the ballots in a locked collection box until they were transported to the county is actually safer than ballot harvesting carried out by Democrats, Hiltachk argued, in which minimum-wage workers go door to door and store them in the trunk of their cars or wherever until they deliver them to the county – if they deliver them to the county.
Padilla and Becerra mischaracterized what the CAGOP was doing in numerous media interviews and in their cease and desist letter, according to Hiltachk:
First, you have mischaracterized the actual program my client has put in place.
No secure box is left unattended at any Party office/headquarters when voters are permitted to deposit their completed VBM into the box. Party staff or volunteers were so instructed
The Party did not place any secure box outside, or on the street, or any other non-secure location where the general public can see or use the box. The picture you attached, posted by Jake Tapper on Twitter, was a photo taken by a church pastor while the box was being delivered to his church. It was not placed curbside. It was placed inside the identified church.
All VBM ballots voluntarily provided by voters to a party staff member or volunteer and placed in a secure box, were delivered timely to the appropriate election official as the law commands.
The California Republican Party did not promote, or authorize the promotion of, the secure boxes as “official mail drop boxes.” When we learned that a sign using the word “official” was used in some locations on Saturday, October 10, 2020, we corrected that error immediately and within hours.
The letter then went on to state the procedures CAGOP already had in place to ensure ballots were collected and delivered to the appropriate authorities according to the law:
Accept VBM ballots voluntarily delivered by voters to a local Party office or headquarters through election day;
Secure such VBM ballots in a locked and secure box until those ballots are delivered to the appropriate election official no later than 72 hours from receipt;
Ensure that such boxes are attended to at all times the office is open to the public;
Instruct our staff and volunteers on these procedures; and
Make the boxes, and instructions on its proper use, available to any person or organization desiring to collect VBM ballots.
Still, Padilla accused the CAGOP of engaging in unlawful activity.
“The California Republican Party can collect ballot collection activities but they have to play by the rules and follow state law” says @AlexPadilla4CA, accuses them of seeking to “spin their unlawful conduct by playing the victim all week along”
— Jeremy B. White (@JeremyBWhite) October 16, 2020
And Becerra low-key accused the party of ballot tampering.
— Jeremy B. White (@JeremyBWhite) October 16, 2020
Way to be an example to our divided country, guys.
On its official Twitter account, the CAGOP took Padilla and Becerra to task for creating even more confusion.
“The Secretary of State and Attorney General didn’t know the facts and didn’t bother to learn them before accusing us on Monday. We can't agree to not do something we weren't doing to begin with. They could have shortened this press conference by simply saying ‘Sorry.’"
— CAGOP (@CAGOP) October 16, 2020
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) said that the Democrats attempted to “intimidate people of faith and Republicans and suppress their vote” instead of working with them “to fix an error that was already quickly resolved,” referring to the drop boxes that had been modified to include the word “official.”
Instead of working with us to fix an error that was already quickly resolved, the Democrats that run our state tried to intimidate people of faith and Republicans and suppress their vote. We have stood our ground and our legal ballot collections WILL continue. https://t.co/yQowCYSFp3
— Ken Calvert (@KenCalvert) October 16, 2020
Unfortunately, in the end, as the L.A. Times’ Myers tweeted, the end result is that both sides are unhappy and believe the other is acting in bad faith.