The personal mailbox debacle, triggered by California Republicans appearing to violate state laws, immediately injected new chaos into the fast-paced and unprecedented 2020 election process.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to historic interest in mail order voting, but President Donald Trump and the GOP have spent months attacking the integrity of mail order cards and fighting dropboxes in court. The California dispute is the latest sticking point in this ongoing battle.
“Whether or not it’s technically legal, it’s hugely problematic for voters,” said CNN election law analyst Rick Hasen, who is also a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine. He said the unauthorized personal mailboxes “weren̵
7;t safe” and that the GOP “was asking for trouble”.
California will send ballots to all registered voters this year. Voters can send their ballots back or return them to their official personal boxes. There are anti-fraud safeguards built into the process to make sure ballots are filled in by the right voter and personal boxes are protected from tampering.
The California Republican Party has installed dozens of unauthorized ballot boxes in at least four Southern California counties, where competitive House competitions are held this year. The party claims it did so as part of a total effort to collect and legally return people’s votes.
Electoral officials in affected counties have expressed alarm over the “deceptive” boxes. The California governor, attorney general, and secretary of state – all Democrats – condemned the personal boxes and sent cease and desist letters, telling the state GOP to remove the personal boxes by Thursday. At the end of Tuesday, according to the press office of Attorney General Xavier Becerra, no response was received.
Why did the Republicans do this?
Republicans said they simply wanted to use their makeshift personal boxes to collect people’s ballots and return them to election officials. Dropboxes have been spotted in churches and gun shops in more conservative areas, suggesting they were an effort to increase turnout among GOP voters where there are competitive House contests.
“The Republicans are in a difficult situation,” Hasen said. “On the one hand, there is the president, who criticizes mail-order voting and says he is prone to fraud. On the other hand, Republicans in California have long relied on a strong mail-order vote to get the Republican vote “.
But some Democrats said the Republicans were trying to manipulate the elections. California Governor Gavin Newsom said the incident proved that Republicans would “lie, cheat and threaten our democracy for the sake of gaining power,” without providing evidence that the GOP planned to tamper with ballot papers. The Republicans deny any wrongdoing and accuse the Democrats of hypocrisy.
Did the Republicans break the law?
Yes, according to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat who oversees the election. His office sent a five-page memo to the counties explaining their interpretation of relevant state laws, which govern ballot boxes and third-party ballot collection efforts.
Padilla’s office says state law only allows election officials – not political parties – to create personal boxes for voters to return their ballots. Therefore, the boxes installed by GOP are illegal.
The memo also states that Republicans have violated ballot collection laws, which is pejoratively called “ballot collection”. California allows voters to designate any “person” to return the vote in their name, often a family member of a political campaign volunteer. But GOP dropboxes have eliminated this part of the person-to-person process, which is a fundamental protection against fraud.
Is there an investigation?
Becerra is “ready to take action to enforce state law if necessary,” his office said in the letter from state GOP leaders.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office said Monday it had “launched an investigation” into unauthorized personal boxes. District Attorney Todd Spitzer, a Republican, said in a press release that he “will not tolerate anyone who interferes with someone’s ability to make their voice heard in our democratic process” and will consider whether the criminal charges are justified.
Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth told CNN she received videos from an improper GOP dropbox voter in her area and referred them to the Fresno County District Attorney.
How is Trump responding?
Trump has repeatedly undermined the integrity of the election and lied about the prevalence of election fraud in California and other states. He falsely claimed that voting boxes are dangerous and lead to election fraud, and on Tuesday he entered the California dispute with two tweets.
“You mean only the Democrats can do it? But the Democrats haven’t done it for years? See you in court. Fight the Republicans hard!” trump tweeted
Tuesday night, loosely describing state laws, which allow any party to collect ballots, as long as it is done in person.
And in a file previous tweet
, Trump encouraged Republicans in two other reputable Democratic states to try similar tactics, saying, “New York and Illinois – try it!” While Trump seemed eager to take legal action over the dropbox situation in California, the Trump campaign and Republicans have failed to stop mail-order voting in the courts this cycle.
What happens next?
The next few days will determine whether this dispute turns into a massive political showdown, leads to a full-blown criminal investigation – or whether Republicans quietly decide to back down.
It is possible that Republicans were just trying to test the waters of what they are legally allowed to do, such as their recent efforts to send unauthorized poll watchers to voting sites in Philadelphia. Another more sinister possibility, experts said, is that they knew personal boxes would cause problems, but are trying to wreak havoc and undermine public confidence in the mail-voting process.
“I think imparting a coherent political strategy to this is a silly task,” said CNN analyst Jessica Huseman, who is in charge of voting rights and election administration for ProPublica. “I think it was just a way for them to mix the pot, and I don’t know how effective it was. Ultimately, the people who ended up holding the bag were members of the Republican Party and no one else.”