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Calif. Officials Tell State GOP To Stop Distributing Ballot Drop Boxes

NOEL KING, HOST:

This year, California, like many U.S. states, mailed out ballots to all of its voters - more than 21 million people. They can mail their ballots free of charge or drop them off at county-approved ballot boxes. Over the weekend, reporting surfaced that the Republican Party is setting up its own ballot boxes in three counties. California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas told us that is legal.

HECTOR BARAJAS: Well within state law to be doing what we're doing - and we are going to continue to do this. We still have yet to have the secretary of state provide us what election code we are violating.

KING: California's top elections official, the secretary of state, Alex Padilla, joins us this morning. He has ordered the GOP ballot boxes to be removed.

Thank you, sir, for being here.

ALEX PADILLA: Thank you for having me.

KING: Why are you ordering the removal?

PADILLA: Well, look. The boxes in question are not allowed under state law. And it is absolutely clear. And if the California Republican Party is wondering what state code or law they are in violation of, they simply need to reference the cease-and-desist order that we have issued to them. In California, voters enjoy multiple safe options for returning their vote-by-mail ballots, either through the U.S. Postal Service, to any official secure drop box in their county or in person to any in-person voting location.

KING: You're saying the illegal part here is - you can certainly put your ballot in a drop box, but you've got to do it in an official State of California drop box. It can't just be one that a specific party - a particular party has set up.

PADILLA: That is correct. Official ballot drop boxes - only counties are authorized to install them. And they, of course, have to meet all the requirements and regulations established in state law, strict guidelines on the design and installation of these drop boxes, strict guidelines in terms of how frequently ballots are retrieved from those boxes and returned to the county elections office and by whom. You have none of these security measures when you're dealing with unauthorized drop boxes, especially those that are misleading with false official ballot box tags on them.

KING: You've sent a cease-and-desist order to the GOP. If they don't take the ballot boxes down, what do you do?

PADILLA: If the state Republican Party and specific county Republican parties do not comply with the cease-and-desist order, then there's certainly a number of legal measures that we are ready to entertain.

KING: Is there something telling about the three counties that these GOP drop boxes have been set up in - like, why there?

PADILLA: While I can speculate, I'm not going to. I hope that it is limited to these three counties that...

KING: Oh, but you're not certain.

PADILLA: Well, we're continuing to gather information. If we find out that the issue is more widespread, then we'll certainly respond accordingly.

KING: Well - because I imagine people in California are dropping their ballots off at boxes as we speak, do you have a message for residents there? Should they be concerned that they might accidentally drop their ballot off at a box that is illegitimate?

PADILLA: Oh, we have a number of recommendations for California voters. No. 1, understand your multiple safe options for returning your ballot by mail, to an official secure drop box or to any in-person voting location on or before Election Day. And when you find the drop box, make sure it has the county seal on it.

KING: California changed its laws in 2016 to make it legal to collect someone else's ballot and turn it in for them. So the state is willing to change laws to make it easier for people to vote. Hector Barajas of the state GOP seems to be saying, again, we're trying to do the same thing, make it easier for people to vote. Should the law be changed again so that parties can put up drop boxes, make it easier for folks?

PADILLA: Look. I don't think the law needs to be changed again. I think we need to be honest with the voters. Again, the power is for the voter to decide who they trust to return their ballot for them if they aren't able to mail it back, deliver it themselves to a drop box or to an in-person voting location. When a voter is misled and allowed to deliver their ballot to an unauthorized drop box, they don't know who they're turning it over to.

KING: Big-picture question - you said you don't know how many of these drop boxes are out there. How much of a wrench does this throw into the works of California's election?

PADILLA: Again, we're working hard as it is to ensure every eligible voter in California understands their options for voting this November. Now the work of state and local elections officials increases in making sure voters who may have potentially been misled understand their options for verifying the status of their ballot to ensure that it gets counted.

KING: California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the top elections official in California.

Thank you for your time this morning.

PADILLA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.