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The California Republican Party responded Monday to criticism over unofficial ballot drop-off boxes in counties with highly competitive U.S. House races, arguing that state law allows “ballot harvesting,” while also slamming a $35 million contract the state’s top election official awarded to a “Team Biden” public relations firm.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, had his chief legal counsel send Republicans a letter on Monday ordering them to remove unofficial ballot drop-off boxes from churches, gun shops and other locations in Fresno, Orange and Los Angeles counties by Thursday.
Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party, told Fox News that “the secretary of state's actions is just a deflection from the mounting criticism for giving a non-budgeted, $35 million get-out-the-vote contract to a ‘Team Biden’ PR firm, which is also receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose Republican candidates in targeted California districts.”
CALIFORNIA AG SENDS CEASE AND DESIST LETTER TO STATE GOP AMID REPORTS ABOUT UNOFFICIAL BALLOT BOXES
Last week, the California state comptroller rejected the $35 million contract Padilla entered with SKD Knickerbocker, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm, in late August to run the “Vote Safe California” campaign urging people to vote during the pandemic.
Anita Dunn, the firm’s managing director, is a senior strategist for Biden’s presidential campaign. SKD Knickerbocker’s work for Biden is highlighted on its website, with a headline saying the company is “proud to be a part of Team Biden.”
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla stands next to a pallet with voting ballots, after a news conference on Orange County’s comprehensive plans to safeguard election and provide transparency in Santa Ana, Calif., Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The state comptroller said Padilla lacked any budget authority to spend the millions of dollars in taxpayer funds on the voter outreach campaign, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation sent Padilla a letter on Oct. 6 demanding that he stop any further spending regarding the “illegal” contract.
When the contract was first initiated weeks ago, Jessica Millan Patterson, chairwoman of the California Republican Party, argued it screamed of a conflict of interest, but Padilla’s office said politics played no role in what companies were considered, the finalists selected, or the eventual decision.
CALIFORNIA HIRES DEMOCRATIC OPERATIVES FOR 'GET OUT THE VOTE' EFFORT
In regards to the unofficial ballot boxes, Barajas said Republicans would “continue their ballot harvesting program,” adding that “Democrat anger is overblown when state law allows organizations, volunteers or campaign workers to collect completed ballots and drop them off at polling places or election offices.”
“In California, where you can have convicted felons and individuals with a criminal history go door to door and collect ballots from voters, Democrats are now upset because organizations, individuals and groups are offering an opportunity for their friends, family and patrons to drop off their ballot with someone they know and trust,” Barajas said.
"If Democrats are so concerned with ballot harvesting, they are the ones who wrote the legislation, voted for it, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law. California Republicans would be happy to do away with ballot harvesting.”
Democrat Brown was governor of California from 1975 to 1983 and from 2011 to 2019. Gov. Gavin Newsom, another Democrat, replaced him in January 2019 after winning the general election against Republican John H. Cox.
Due to the coronavirus and health safety concerns at polling places, California for the first time mailed ballots for the Nov. 3 election to all active registered voters – more than 21 million people. The ballots come with pre-paid envelopes for voters to mail back, free of charge.
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In this Oct. 5, 2020, file photo, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, left, and Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley hold a news conference on Orange County’s comprehensive plans to safeguard the election and provide transparency in Santa Ana, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
State law also allows county election officers to set up drop boxes throughout the county where people can drop off their ballots in person. The secure boxes can sometimes weigh more than 600 pounds and are monitored frequently by local election officials.
Republicans have set up their own drop boxes at churches, gas stations and gun shops in at least three California counties. Some are identified as “secure ballot drop-off location,” while others say “approved and bought by the GOP.” The party declined to say precisely how many boxes have been distributed and where they all have been placed.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, also a Democrat, on Monday threatened to prosecute “anyone who knowingly engages in the tampering or misuse of a vote.”
“We hope that the message goes out loud and clear to anyone who is trying to improperly solicit, obtain and manage a citizen's vote that they are subject to prosecution,” Becerra said. “I'm trying to be careful with how I say this, but the reports we are hearing are disturbing.”
In California, state law also says voters who can't return their ballots themselves can ask anyone else to do it for them. Previously, people who returned a ballot for someone else also had to sign it and list their relationship to the voter. But a separate law passed in 2018 eliminated that requirement.
“It appears Republicans are well within their right to collect ballots in this manner. It’s just that Democrats don’t like it,” Republican state Sen. Melissa Melendez posted to her official Twitter account.
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Democrats have blasted the use of the unofficial boxes and say they fear Republicans could use them to gather and discard ballots.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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