By Sam Petto
In early October, a controversy was brewing in California as officials launched legal threats against the California Republican Party for its use of “unauthorized” ballot drop boxes. Finding the California Republican Party set up over 100 unauthorized, non-official drop boxes in the state, California officials sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that GOP officials hand over ballots, disclose the locations of its unauthorized boxes, and cease current ballot collection practices to prevent voter confusion.
In their letter, officials claimed only county officials had the authority to determine the number, location, and hours of availability for drop boxes, and that state law established rules requiring designated ballot retrievers to collect and return ballots. Additionally, the state claimed that the GOP’s boxes violated laws requiring a third-party ballot collector to have their name, signature, and relationship to the voter listed on the ballot pursuant to Elections Code Section 3011(a).Californians have to know who they are signing their ballot over to if they are not depositing it into an official drop box. Here, state officials argued they did not know.
In response to the cease-and-desist letter, California Republicans argued their drop boxes were a valid means of collection by a political party under the Elections Code. They also claimed that the issue of ballots not having information about the third-party collector was immaterial because such ballots would nonetheless be counted according to Elections Code Section 3011(c).
This controversy surrounds legislative action taken by California Democrats in recent years. In 2016, California Democrats passed a law allowing anyone, including paid campaign operatives and political parties, to collect and return vote by mail ballots. In 2018, California Democrats prohibited a ballot’s disqualification solely because the person returning it did not provide their name, signature, and relationship to the voter on the ballot’s envelope.
A week after sending the cease-and-desist letter, California officials changed course. They reiterated that while ballot collection is allowed, state rules require anyone who assists with delivering a ballot to sign the ballot envelope and document chain of custody. However, officials further stipulated that ballots without a signature from the third-party collector would not be rejected. In turn, California Republicans agreed to remove the term “official” from drop boxes bearing such a label and ensure that unstaffed and unsecured drop boxes would receive proper protection.
This controversy is only the latest involving ballot harvesting, or the collection of ballots by a third-party. Officials critical of the practice argue existing laws fail to provide adequate oversight, leaving the ballot collection process susceptible to fraud that may prove difficult to detect. This illusion of fraud may weaken the public’s perception that the electoral process is safe and secure. On the other hand, proponents of ballot harvesting schemes cite voter convenience and another way for voters to cast their ballots and participate in the electoral process.
The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a resource on vote by mail ballot return and collection policies nationwide. While some states require voters to return their ballots, ten other states allow a voter’s ballot to be returned by a family member or relative. In contrast, 26 states allow a voter to designate anyone to return their ballot. Among these states, nearly half have placed limits on the number of ballots any one person can collect and return.
Despite concerns with the GOP’s drop boxes, Californians maintain control over how they ultimately cast their ballots in the election. Voters have many ways of ensuring their vote counts this year. Notably, every vote by mail ballot comes with a prepaid postage return envelope for convenient return. Any voter can also walk into their voting location, official ballot drop box or early drop-off site, or county elections office to cast their ballot in-person. If these methods are unsatisfactory to any voter, they may instead vote in-person on Election Day. It remains unclear how many Californians were confused by GOP-sponsored drop boxes, and how just many voters cast their ballot using one in recent weeks.