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California Republican Party suing state's governor over "ballot harvesting" ahead of special elections

The California Republican Party is suing Governor Gavin Newsom to prohibit the practice of ballot collecting or "ballot harvesting" during two upcoming special elections in the state, arguing it stands "in direct conflict" with social distancing guidelines and Newsom's shelter-in-place mandate to slow the spread of the coronavirus

Two weeks ago California Republican Party chairwoman Jessica Patterson sent Newsom a letter asking him to halt the practice and clarify that his order "prohibits collection of ballots," but she said Newsom did not respond.

"The governor has dodged his responsibility," Patterson told CBS News. "We're hoping the courts will compel him to clarify," she added.

Patterson accused Newsom of avoiding this issue "because of a political ploy his party has used to get ahead." She added, "The governor has commented on nearly every aspect of our lives and he can't tell us whether or not ballot harvesting is legal during the stay-at-home order."

Jessica Patterson
Jessica Patterson seen Thursday, February 21, 2019, in Sacramento, California. AP

Ballot harvesting allows party volunteers or campaign workers to collect mail-in ballots from voters and submit them in groups to polling places or election offices. In 2016, California expanded the law to allow any person to collect a mail-in ballot. Prior law restricted the practice to just relatives of those or those living in the same household as the voter. 

Earlier this week, Newsom's office declined to comment on this story and after the lawsuit was filed Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the governor told CBS News they don't typically comment on pending litigation. 

California's Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is also named in the lawsuit and is currently pushing for a 50-state, vote-by-mail plan ahead of the November presidential election, told CBS News, "this whole debate is nothing but a pretext that Republicans use to advance their voter suppression agenda."

Padilla said there is "no conflict" when it comes to ballot harvesting during the coronavirus pandemic despite a statewide stay-at-home order that Newsom issued in mid-March.

"Yes, there are numerous public health directives in place," Padilla acknowledged. "But at the same time, there are fundamental voting rights that are in place and must be protected. There is no conflict. People can reach out to voters and people can exercise multiple ways of voting, while respecting public health directives." 

Patterson argued that voters "aren't leaving their ballots on the front steps," and that the practice of ballot harvesting "requires an in-person hand off." She added "that would absolutely violate social distancing if someone is coming to your house, and picking up that ballot from you, and you're signing it over to them."

Following the 2018 midterm elections, after the Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, some GOP leaders raised questions about the security of ballot harvesting while others acknowledged the need to catch up with Democrats on the effort.

Patterson said in the last year, the state Republican Party recruited and trained more than 16,000 volunteers as "neighborhood team leaders" and tasked them with developing a trustful relationship with the local communities. She acknowledged that Republicans used ballot harvesting for the March 3 primary but noted that "we live in a very different world than we did in the March primary." 

Now, top Republican officials — including President Trump and House Minority Leader and California Congressman Kevin McCarthy — are pushing to stop the practice. Writing in all capital letters earlier this month, President Trump tweeted that ballot harvesting "is rampant with fraud," while McCarthy called on Padilla to stop the "gamesmanship" and ban ballot harvesting.

Wednesday's lawsuit specifically points to upcoming special elections on May 12 in California's 25th Congressional District and the 28th state Senate District. The congressional race for the 25th District is to replace Democrat Katie Hill who resigned after a sex scandal and a congressional ethics investigation. 

Christy Smith, a Democratic state assemblywoman, is running against former U.S. Navy fighter pilot and Republican businessman Mike Garcia. A spokesperson for Smith's campaign told CBS News that "due to public health concerns, we are not collecting ballots from supporters at this time." Garcia's office has not yet responded to CBS News' request for comment. 

Patterson said the California Republican Party has currently halted all ballot harvesting efforts and "following the stay-at-home orders." She added that lawyers on her team are trying to move forward quickly "because we have two weeks before the special election."

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