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Battle Heats Up Over Legal Challenge to Unofficial GOP Drop Boxes

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An official mail-in ballot for the Nov. 3, 2020 election. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Update 7:35 p.m. Wednesday: An attorney for the California Republican Party sent a letter Wednesday afternoon California to Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra asserting that the party's ballot drop boxes are perfectly legal under the election laws enacted by Democrats in the state Legislature. The GOP letter says the party has no intention of removing the boxes as the state has ordered.

Original post, 12:30 p.m. Wednesday: The political battle over the California Republican Party's installation of unofficial vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes escalated on Wednesday, with Democratic congressional candidates crying foul over the practice, a day after President Trump encouraged the GOP to "fight hard" in court.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is threatening legal action against the state Republican Party and a handful of county GOP organizations for setting up private ballot collection boxes in some of the state's most closely contested congressional districts — and labeling some as "official." It's the latest legal scuffle between California and its Republican Party over the state's vote-by-mail rules, leading up to an election in which every Golden State voter has been mailed a ballot.

In response to the expected increase in the number of people voting by mail this year, county election officials have set up thousands of official ballot drop boxes across the state. Here's how to find drop-off locations near you.

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The latest controversy surfaced over the weekend after state election officials received reports of the Republican drop boxes at churches, gas stations and gun shops in Fresno, Los Angeles and Orange counties, all areas with very competitive U.S. House races. Democrats have blasted the use of the unofficial boxes as a violation of state law, saying they fear Republicans could use them to gather and discard ballots.

"My opponent and the GOP are clearly engaging in heinous and illegal acts of election fraud," said U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Laguna Beach, who represents California's 48th Congressional District, one of the areas where some of the GOP ballot boxes have been installed.

Two years ago, Rouda flipped the seat, which had been held by Republicans for 30 years, when he defeated longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. He now faces a tight race with Republican challenger Michelle Steel.

Rouda spoke at a Wednesday morning press conference organized by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which also featured U.S. Rep. TJ Cox, D-Fresno, and state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita, both running in swing districts where the GOP-operated drop boxes have also appeared.

"The way that none of our opponents are willing to stand up and speak out against this scheme is incredibly telling," said Smith, who is vying to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, in the 25th District, north of Los Angeles.

Cox is facing a challenge from former Republican Congressman David Valadao, who he narrowly defeated in 2018.

The Cook Political Report rates the Cox-Valadao and Garcia-Smith races as "toss ups," while Rouda’s seat is rated "Lean Democrat."

Republicans have argued that their ballot boxes are simply a form of "balloting harvesting" allowed under state law.

"The only thing heinous here are California Democrats including Harley Rouda, TJ Cox and Christy Smith doing their best to suppress the vote of Christian voters," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair, in a statement.

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In a Monday letter, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, both Democrats, accused the GOP of misrepresenting some of the boxes as “official,” even though they were not set up by county election officials and do not adhere to ballot security requirements.

Hector Barajas, spokesman for the California Republican Party, acknowledged earlier this week that the party "could have done a better job with the wording," on the ballot box labels.

But the GOP has shown little interest in backing down from the program entirely, arguing that the votes in the private boxes should still be counted.

"The containers themselves and the boxes themselves still remain legal," Barajas asserted.

California is among the 26 states that allow a voter to designate someone else to collect and return their ballot — also referred to as "ballot harvesting" — according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Republicans have opposed California’s ballot collection law, but now say they are only trying to compete on a level playing field.

Under Assembly Bill 1921, passed by the state Legislature in 2016, voters can designate anyone they want to collect and deliver their mail-in ballots, an expansion of previous rules — which had only allowed family members or people living in the same household to do so.

State party officials, who have not disclosed how many boxes have been set up statewide and where they are located, argue that ballots left in their private boxes can still be legally counted without the signature of a ballot collector, and say there is little legal daylight between their program and ballot collections that take place face to face.

The party was encouraged on Tuesday evening by President Trump, who tweeted, "You mean only Democrats are allowed to do this? But haven’t the Dems been doing this for years? See you in court. Fight hard Republicans!"

DCCC legal counsel Marc Elias said that simply relabeling the boxes, as some have suggested, is not enough.

"That’s not sufficient," Elias said. "The fact is that California law is clear about the chain of custody that needs to be maintained in order for third-party lawful ballot collection to be undertaken."

The state's cease-and-desist letter gave the Republican Party a Thursday deadline to respond, and provide the names of voters who left their ballots in the private boxes. The letter said local election officials "will contact these individuals to advise them of their options to verify the return status of their vote-by-mail ballot."

KQED's Scott Shafer contributed to this report.

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