A large metal box located outside Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Castaic, bearing a taped-on sign that read “Official Ballot Drop Box” has been removed, following reports it was an unauthorized, unofficial ballot drop box.
The church’s pastor, Jerry Cook, posted a photo of the box on Facebook last week, with a caption that read, “Our church has a voting drop box in front of our complex. If you are voting early, drop your ballot on by.”
This box and others like it are actually illegal, according to state officials, and were found not just in L.A. County over the weekend, but also in Fresno and Orange counties.
“Our office has been made aware of unauthorized, non-official ballot drop boxes being used or having been proposed to be used at local political party offices, candidate headquarters and churches throughout the state,” a statement released by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office Sunday read. “Examples provided to our office include boxes or containers labeled simply as ‘ballot drop boxes,’ while others have been designated misleadingly as ‘official ballot drop boxes.’”
Those who erect or advertise unofficial ballot boxes could be charged with a felony, punishable by two to four years in prison, per the statement.
On Monday, California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas confirmed that the party owns the boxes and has no plans to remove them, instead stating that the state’s law governing so-called ballot harvesting allows an organization to collect and return groups of ballots.
“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’ statement read. “The 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.”
California Democratic Party Chair Rusty Hicks also issued a statement regarding the boxes Monday, stating, “Sadly, this is par for the course from the Republican Party — well-versed in making it harder, not easier for Californians to vote. California Democrats are committed to the right of all registered voters to fully, fairly and equally access the ballot box. And we intend to defend that right in 2020.”
In a press conference Monday, Padilla clarified that these ballot boxes do not qualify as ballot harvesting, which is legal in California, as state law requires voters to designate a person to return their ballot, nor do they meet security requirements.
Cook confirmed Monday that it was, in fact, the California GOP who had contacted the church, offering to provide them with the boxes.
“(With) everyone concerned about the coronavirus, I thought it would be a good help for a church to offer that,” Cook said. “I will say, when I first saw the ballot box, it didn’t look like the ones that I have been used to seeing.”
Even so, Cook was under the impression that it was simply a way for the California GOP to harvest ballots, which is legal in California.
“That’s the way it came, so I just assumed they had all their ducks in a row,” he added, noting that it was the label of “official” that later came into question.
The box stood out front of the church for a few days last week and was removed once concerns were raised.
“We just want to be a church that’s a service to the community and a blessing to the community,” Cook said. “It’s unfortunate that this had to happen because if there’s anybody who would like election integrity, it would be myself. I want to make sure that every vote is counted, and I want to make sure it’s done fairly.”
At nearby Grace Baptist Church, Executive Pastor Joe Keller also said Monday that the church had received a similar ballot box from the California GOP last week.
The church had already been in contact with L.A. County to become a registered voting location and saw the boxes as an additional opportunity to help the community exercise their right to vote, Keller said.
“Historically here at Grace Baptist Church, we want to be a place that serves the community, and so this opportunity came for us to give an additional opportunity for a nonpartisan box so that people could drop off their ballots,” Keller added, “(but) once we realized that there could be some concern about it, we removed it immediately and called the California GOP to come and pick it up.”
It was over the weekend that the L.A. County Registrar/Recorder’s Office received reports that places of worship had placed ballot drop boxes on their property, identifying them as “official.”
“To be clear, they are not official county drop boxes,” according to a statement released by L.A. County registrar officials. “The drop boxes identified at these places of worship do not comply with regulations for ballot drop boxes.”
Since then, the county Recorder/Registrar’s Office has attempted to reach these places of worship as they work with county counsel to issue a cease-and-desist letter, also notifying the Secretary of State’s Office.
Through the confusion, election officials have clarified that only they have the authority to erect ballot drop boxes, and have done so locally, with 400 secure ballot drop boxes located across L.A. County, encouraging all voters looking to return their voted ballot do so in-person at an official drop box.
To find an official ballot box location in L.A. County near you, visit locator.LAvote.net.