At least two Baptist churches — and most likely others — have been used as controversial ballot collection sites organized by the California Republican Party and declared illegal by state elections officials.
National Republican Congressional Committee Deputy Chair Ken Calvert defended the use of churches and other private enterprises to collect ballots in unofficial boxes marked as “official” ballot boxes.
“California Democrats closed churches, suppressing Californians’ right to worship, and now they’re suppressing churchgoers’ voting rights,” he charged. “Ballot harvesting is legal in the state of California, Democrats legalized it, and it is clear with these ballot boxes Republicans are following the laws Democrats put in place. In the face of voter suppression attempts by California Democrats, Republicans have and will continue to be steadfast in defending Californians’ voting rights.”
CNN reported that Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Santa Clarita was one of the locations where California Republicans stationed dozens of unauthorized ballot drop boxes that were made to appear like official election stations. Twitter users also reported a similar box at Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita.
Jerry Cook, lead pastor at Freedom’s Way church, said in a sermon last Sunday that there was “no problem” with the unofficial ballot box, CNN reported. “Freedom’s Way Baptist provides the option to its parishioners to drop off their ballot in a safe location. Isn’t church pretty safe? In a safe location with people they trust rather than handing it over to a stranger who knocks on their door, which is something called ballot harvesting.”
Criticism of this effort is unfounded, the pastor added. “They are suggesting that something nefarious is happening with the ballots here, that perhaps the pastor of the church is counting the ballots and looking through and saying, ‘That’s a Biden voter, we’re going to throw that away’ and then we’re going to go ahead and go with the Trump voters,” he said.
“That isn’t the case because not only are we a safe and secure place, but we’re also an honest place.”
Nevertheless, Cook told his congregation they should “vote right” and vote with “biblical and American values.”
What was to happen to ballots dropped into the church’s box was not clear.
California law allows any person who is unable to return their mail-in ballot themselves to designate another person to return it to the precinct board or the elections official who issued it. For example, a friend or family member could collect mail-in ballots from multiple people and deliver them all at once.
State law does not authorize the use of non-official ballot drop boxes, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told CNN. Only county elections officials have authority to designate the location, hours of operation and number of drop boxes in the county.
Further, according to the state’s elections code, any person provicing a ballot drop box other than a county or state election official could be guilty of a felony and subject to two to four years of imprisonment.
The secretary of state issued a cease and desist letter to Republican officials, demanding that the unofficial ballot collection boxes be removed. Republican officials said they would not relent.
Hector Barajas, spokesman for the California Republican Party, talked with Audie Cornish of NPR about their stance.
He said the boxes, because they are located inside businesses or churches or campaign headquarters, are allowed for ballot harvesting.
“The way California law was written four years ago in 2016, you can have individuals that go to your house, collect your ballot, leave it in the trunk of their car, put it in their home or garage,” Barajas said on NPR. “And yet the secretary of state has never brought up a question as to where those ballots are stored.”
He also confirmed the use of churches as locations for the drop boxes. “Yes, we do have some of these ballot boxes in some of the churches. … If I’m going to my church or I’m going to a gun shop, for example, and there’s a box there where they’re collecting ballots, I’m going to trust that that place that I frequent is going to be able to take over — take my ballot over to the county registrar of voters.”
Barajas also spoke with the Orange County Register, where he again confirmed the use of the drop boxes and declined to indicate the number in use across the state. He said the previously reported number of 100 locations is too low.
The California Republican Party has agreed to stop labeling the boxes as “official,” which Barajas told the Register was a “poor choice of wording.”
The Register reported: “State and local authorities say it was more than just poor wording, though, with the attorney general’s office, the Orange County district attorney and other agencies investigating for potential felony violations of state election law that can carry up to four years in prison. And the secretary of state said simply removing the ‘official’ signs doesn’t satisfy the cease and desist notices.”
Mark Elias, attorney for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Register: “What the Republicans did here is they set up illegal drop boxes, they fraudulently labeled them as ‘official’ and now, once they’ve been caught, they’re trying to take a half step back. Even now, the chair of the party recognizes that that was wrong, and there needs to be consequences for that.”
At least some locations of the drop boxes appear to coordinate geographically with the most hotly contested local and regional races in this election cycle, particularly Orange County, which has been in the process of flipping from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic viability.