California's top election official is investigating reports that the state's Republican Party has set up unauthorized ballot drop boxes posing as "official" in several major counties, an illegal practice that could deceive voters into depositing their ballots at unsecure locations.
"Operating unofficial ballot drop boxes — especially those misrepresented as official drop boxes — is not just misleading to voters, it's a violation of state law," California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement responding to reports of unauthorized ballot drop boxes in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Orange counties.
As the local Orange County Register reported late Sunday, "In a photo posted to social media last week, a young man wearing a mask with Orange County congressional candidate Michelle Steel's name on it is holding a mail ballot and giving a thumbs up next to a box about the size of a file cabinet labeled 'Official ballot drop off box.'"
"The post, from Jordan Tygh, a regional field director for the California Republican Party, encouraged people to message him for 'convenient locations' to drop their own ballots," the Register reported.
That was just one of several instances of potentially illegal election activity by Republican officials that has been reported in recent days. On Saturday night, the Register noted, reports emerged of "a metal box in front of Freedom's Way Baptist Church in Castaic that had a sign matching the one on the Orange County box."
"The church posted on social media that the box was 'approved and brought by the GOP,'" the Register reported. "The post said church officials don't have a key to the box and that GOP officials pick up the ballots... On its website, the Fresno County Republican Party also shared a list of 'secure' ballot collection locations. None are official county drop box sites, with the local GOP instead listing its own headquarters, multiple gun shops, and other local businesses."
Under California state law, only county election officials are authorized to set up ballot drop boxes to ensure adequate security.
Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley told the Register that hundreds of people called his attention to the potentially unlawful ballot drop box promoted by Tygh of the California Republican Party.
"What we did was started to look into it, notified the state, and the secretary of state issued guidance this afternoon that it is illegal and you can't do that," said Kelley said. "It would be like me installing a mailbox out on the corner—the Post Office is the one that installs mailboxes."
Slate staff writer Mark Joseph Stern called the Register's reporting "incredibly alarming" and said it suggests "appalling criminal conduct by California Republican operatives."
"California Republicans are allegedly creating fake drop boxes and tricking voters into depositing their ballots in them," wrote Stern. "Apparently they're trying to prove voter fraud is real by committing actual election fraud."