Top elections officials in California are scrambling to find out how many illegal ballot drop boxes Republican staffers put up in three counties across the state over the weekend, as local law enforcement authorities continue to search for outstanding witnesses and potential suspects. The state's Republican Party, meanwhile, has indicated that it won't comply with an official order to remove the boxes, and may even add more.
On Monday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said his office, in conjunction with the state justice department, issued a cease-and-desist order to the California GOP to remove the illegal ballot drop boxes that have appeared in Los Angeles County, Orange County and Fresno County.
Padilla said the notice was also sent to the Republican parties in the three counties in question and gave them until Thursday to comply with the order to remove all the drop boxes.
"If they refuse to comply, then of course we will entertain all of our legal options," Padilla said at a virtual press conference alongside State Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Last Thursday a regional field director with the California Republican Party in Orange County tweeted a photo of himself holding a vote-by-mail ballot, standing next to a black cabinet with a taped sign that read "official ballot drop off box." The staffer, Jordan Tygh, encouraged voters to message him for "convenient locations" to drop off their ballots.
"The Democrat anger is overblown," said California GOP spokesman Hector Barajas. He added that state laws and regulations don't indicate whether private organization's drop boxes are permitted or not.
Padilla said the images his office received over the weekend showed some of the boxes labeled as "official" even though they had not been placed by the county elections officials in those areas. (California voters can find the location of official ballot drop boxes here.)
One of several options California voters have to return their mail-in ballot is choosing someone they trust to drop the completed ballot at a county elections office. In 2016, the law was expanded to allow volunteers, campaign operatives, and private organizations, in addition to close family members, to return a ballot.
The ballot must be signed by both the voter and the person collecting it and dropped off at a local election office within 72 hours. Operatives can be paid by the hour for collecting ballots in California, but they cannot be paid for the number of ballots they collect.
"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 we wanted to use a Santa bag, we could. A locked heavy box seems a lot safer," he added.
According to the Sacramento Bee, the Fresno County Republicans' website had instructions that read, "Don't take a chance that your vote will not be counted. Once your ballot arrives in the mail, mark your ballot completely and then walk it in, as soon as possible, to one of the secure locations listed below." The locations listed included gun shops, a gas station and the county Republican headquarters. Now, the link to the illegal ballot box collection locations is blank, and the Sacramento Bee reported that Fresno County Republicans would remove the ballot boxes by Thursday.
Republicans "mislabeling" and "misrepresenting" the boxes causes an issue, Padilla said, because voters are led to believe they are turning in their ballots to elections officials. He added that voters "do not know who it is they're surrendering their ballot to."
The secretary of state's office is still investigating how many of these boxes appeared over the weekend and how many voters used them. Padilla said all eligible ballots that arrive at county elections offices with "appropriate measures that are taken to ensure the integrity of that vote" will be processed and counted.
The state Republican Party did not immediately respond when asked if it would comply with the cease-and-desist order by the Thursday deadline, but Barajas, the state party spokesman, later told CBS Sacramento that the operations would continue — albeit with the word "official" removed from the ballot boxes.
"We're going to continue our ballot harvesting programs," Barajas said. Asked by CBS Sacramento why the Republican Party had labeled their private ballot drop boxes "official" in the first place, he said he "would contemplate there might be a distinction if we put a ballot box outside here, on the street in the corner, but these are boxes that are inside places of businesses."
Barajas said the California Republican Party would remove the word "official," but would not remove the boxes themselves. He said they could even add more of the boxes at additional locations including gun stores and churches across the state.
"Show us within the law, where we should stop," Barajas told CBS Sacramento. "Tell us within the law, where we're breaking the law." Regarding Padilla's threat to take legal action if the boxes aren't removed, Barajas said: "We'll see you in court."
In Orange County, home of the 48th Congressional District, a competitive race is shaping up between Democratic incumbent Harley Rouda and Republican Michele Steel. County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley told CBS News that at least six boxes were reported over the weekend, and he believed all had been removed by Monday afternoon.
Kelley said the "frustrating part" is not knowing how many ballots were dropped off at the illegal boxes in Orange County. "If I did have knowledge of that, I would like to contact those voters," Kelley added.
The Orange County district attorney's office said it received reports of "several unauthorized ballot boxes" over the weekend. A spokesperson told CBS News the boxes appeared in at least two cities within the county and added that "we're looking for outstanding witnesses and potential suspects."