Battle over Ballot Drop Boxes Commences

California Secretary of State Issues Cease-and-Desist Warning to Organizations Operating Unofficial Collection Boxes

There are 30 official ballot drop boxes like the one above throughout the county. See for the full list of locations. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

While many county elections officials throughout the state are up in arms about the Republican Party and other groups offering unofficial ballot drop-off boxes — located strategically by churches, gas stations, and gun shops — there’s no evidence of any such activity in Santa Barbara County. County elections czar Joe Holland said he’d heard the local GOP intended to place such boxes around, but added, “We told them not to.”

Greg Gandrud, head of the local Republican Party, stated, “The Santa Barbara County Republican Party is not operating any drop boxes,” but added, “Ballot collection in California is currently legal.”

Late this Monday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla issued a cease-and-desist warning to any organizations operating such drop boxes, insisting that only county elections officials are authorized to provide that service. The head of California’s Republican Party, however, has challenged Padilla’s understanding of the law and has vowed to fight the Secretary of State — a star within statewide Democratic circles — in court.

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With fears about COVID-19 still running rampant — not to mention concerns about slow mail delivery — many counties are offering expanded drop-box service as an alternative way to vote early and safely. Santa Barbara County, for example, is providing 30 such drop boxes. (Republicans in Texas, by contrast, just prevailed in a bitterly fought legal battle allowing them to provide only one such drop box per county.)

If drop boxes have not become the focus of partisan warfare in Santa Barbara, they have in Ventura, where elections chief Mark Lunn has blasted the use of unofficial drop boxes as “a concerted effort to deceive voters.” Official boxes, Lunn noted, are heavily fortified — some weighing 600 pounds — and cannot easily be broken into. Voters, he said, have no assurances that their votes will be counted if they deposit their ballots in unsanctioned boxes.

Under state law, ballots can legally be “harvested,” meaning that third parties are allowed to turn in other people’s ballots, but only if those other people have signed letters of authorization first. That, however, is a separate issue from the use of drop boxes. Republican Party operatives argue they are trying to make voting more convenient and that all ballots collected — even those for Democratic candidates — would be turned in.

Fueling this issue have been President Donald Trump’s frequent denunciations of mail-in voting and many of the surrogate voting schemes adopted by voting officials throughout the country in response to the pandemic. The worry has been that many voters will shy away from voting at polling places for fear of infection. Trump and his supporters have contended these alternatives are rife with fraud, though no data exists that supports that contention.

In Santa Barbara, Holland has exhorted voters to vote early to ensure their ballots can be counted by Election Day, November 3. In fact, Holland mailed out ballots a week earlier than usual, causing a stink throughout the world of political candidates because their ballot statements didn’t get mailed out until a week later. How were voters able to make an informed decision, many challengers worried, if they voted early — as per Holland’s instructions — before reading the candidates’ statements?

Holland’s exhortations appear to have paid off. To date, nearly 33,000 ballots have been cast either by mail or by drop-off. That’s roughly five times as many as the same time four years ago, when Trump upset Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. In Santa Barbara County, there are 231,780 registered voters. Of those who’ve cast ballots so far, 55.61 percent are registered Democrats, 23.2 percent are registered Republicans, 16.41 percent no party preference, and 4.78 percent other.

[UPDATE 10/14] As of Wednesday, 47,000 ballots have been turned in and county elections expected another 5,000 by the end of the day. Compared to the same time frame in the March primaries, Holland said, the county had 12,000 ballots. (In that election, voters — especially Democrats — were holding onto their ballots until the very end, waiting to see which presidential candidate still looked viable.) Of the ballots turned in, 30,000 were cast by mail. Of the drop boxes, the one on Calle Real is most popular, with 2,168 returns. The drop box at the county administration building has 1,395. Holland reports that 416 ballots were returned with no signature; county elections workers are reaching out to those to see if the problems can be resolved. In addition, 109 ballots are being reviewed because the signatures on the ballot don’t appear to match the signatures on the voters’ voter registration forms.

Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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