At least one Turlock church has suspended use of an unofficial ballot drop box on its campus following a cease and desist order from state elections officials which went out to several California counties this week.
According to New Life Christian Center executive pastor Brett Avery, a ballot drop box was provided to the church by the Ted Howze campaign, the Republican candidate for Congressional District 10, and was available for use starting this past Sunday. By Tuesday, the church made the decision to remove the drop box after Stanislaus County Registrar of Voters Donna Linder contacted the organization regarding the use of unofficial ballot boxes and provided information from the California Elections Division detailing their use as illegal.
“This is a contested issue, is the nicest way to say it,” Avery said. “It’s a contested issue that will probably be decided by the court system. Our intent as a church was to provide our church family with what we understood as a legal way to allow them to drop their ballots off.”
On Monday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said his office, along with the state justice department, had issued a cease and desist order to the California GOP after it was discovered they had distributed unauthorized ballot drop boxes in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties. In a memorandum sent out Sunday to all Registrars of Voters throughout the state, Elections Division Chief Jana M. Lean warned of these unauthorized drop boxes being used at local political party offices, candidate headquarters and churches throughout California.
State law does not authorize the use of these unofficial drop boxes, Lean states in the memorandum, and only County elections officials have the authority to designate the location, hours of operation and number of official drop boxes in the county. This allows local elections officials to ensure compliance with all ballot regulations, she said, which guarantee the security and chain of custody for deposited ballots.
There are currently no Turlock churches listed as official ballot drop box sites by Stanislaus County, though Avery said he has inquired about becoming an official drop box location following the removal of New Life’s unofficial box. Monte Vista Chapel told the Journal they would have a ballot drop box available on election day, while Harvest Church has made them available for parishioners on days of worship.
“While returning ballots for others is legal, there is code in which a ballot must be handled and returned,” Linder said.
Under California law, voters do have the option of choosing someone they trust to drop their completed ballot off at a county elections office. That law was expanded in 2016 to allow volunteers, campaign workers and private organizations, in addition to close family members, to return a ballot. The ballot must be signed by the voter, signed by the person they’ve selected to drop it off and turned in to a local election office within 72 hours for the action to comply with state code.
While campaign operatives can’t be compensated based on the number of ballots they collect, they can be paid by the hour for collecting ballots in California. This practice of “ballot harvesting” has been used in past elections by the Democratic party; for example, going door to door to collect ballots prior to the election, or events like the “ballot party” held by the Democratic Party of Orange County ahead of the March primary, which encouraged attendees to fill out their mail-in ballots and leave them in sealed envelopes to be turned in by organizers on their behalf.
Now, Republicans say they’re simply keeping pace with this method of ballot collection by also taking advantage of California’s liberal laws. The California Republican Party issued a news release stating that state law does not specifically ban them from collecting ballots in a box — only from tampering or forging ballots, and that people collecting the ballots cannot be paid for doing so.
However, Lean’s memorandum pointed to the need for a signature on deposited ballots, as stated in Election Code section 3011(a)(11).
“When a voter drops off a ballot in an unauthorized, non-official vote-by-mail drop box, no designated ‘person’ would be signing, as required by state law,” the memorandum reads. “A person designated by the voter to return their vote-by-mail ballot envelope to the county elections official within the required time by law, must provide their name, signature and relationship to the voter.”
While they declined to comment on how many unauthorized ballot boxes they’ve distributed throughout the area, the Howze for Congress Campaign issued the following statement regarding the unofficial drop sites: “In a State where our Democrat opponents use felons and illegal aliens to harvest ballots from their voters' front porches, we support allowing voters to turn in their ballots to trained church volunteers at trusted places of worship."
At New Life, Avery said he is now directing churchgoers to drop off their ballot at one of the locations provided by Stanislaus County.
“Our heart getting into this was to simply help our people have the opportunity to vote,” Avery said.
A list of indoor, outdoor and curbside ballot drop box locations authorized by Stanislaus County can be found at www.stanvote.com