Tulare County GOP may be harvesting ballots illegally

Rae Dean Strawn logs in one of the twelve ballots accumulated within the first half hour of being open. The Porterville office does not claim to have an official ballot box but encourages residents to drop their ballots off at their office to be hand delivered to the registrars office.

Republican offices in at least three California counties are engaging in possibly illegal ballot harvesting, according to the Secretary of State’s office, and the Republican Party of Tulare County appears to be using the same technique in the run-up to the November 3 election.

Local GOP Soliciting Ballots

Last week, a message distributed on social media invited voters in the Porterville area to return their vote-by-mail ballots to the GOP headquarters there, instead of mailing them directly to the Tulare County Elections Office.

“You can safely drop off your ballots at Republican Headquarters, …” the post read. “Believe me, we treat these ballots like gold and hand-deliver them to Visalia every couple of days. We do not leave them in headquarters overnight, but guard them.”

The post, made by Susan Baird Queen of Strathmore, lists an address in Porterville and times the office is open. It is not immediately clear if Queen is an official with the local GOP.

An individual who answered the Republican Party of Tulare County’s listed telephone number confirmed party volunteers are gathering mail-in ballots for later delivery, a practice known as ballot harvesting.

No Official Authorization

That individual also said the party has authorization from election officials to gather the ballots, though it is not clear which officials, state or local, may have given their permission. Local GOP officials have not answered repeated requests for clarification.

Tulare County Registrar of Voters Michelle Baldwin said her office was not informed of the GOP’s intent to harvest ballots and did not OK it. She was, in fact, unaware it was occurring.

“I don’t recall them checking ahead of time about doing that,” she said.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla called the practice illegal and said investigations are underway.

“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,” a statement from Padilla said. “My office is coordinating with local officials to address the multitude of reports of unauthorized drop-boxes.”

Illegally Harvested Ballots Will Count

Under state law, if a mail-in or absentee ballot is returned by anyone other than the voter, the person delivering it must be authorized by the voter. While limits on who may return another’s ballot were changed recently, documentation of the person’s identity must still be provided, Baldwin said.

“Prior to 2018, a voter could authorize an agent from very specific categories. They had to be either a family member…a friend, somebody residing in their house. It was a larger list, but it was a very defined list,” she said. “In 2018, that list went away, and it was down to ‘authorized agent’ of your choosing. It no longer had to be from a particular category.”

According to Baldwin, in order to protect the votes and ensure they have been legally returned, the authorized agent must be identified and documented in a form printed on every ballot’s return envelope.

“I want them to fill out the information,” she said. “They have to write their name, they have to sign it and they have to list their relationship to the voters.”

Thanks to another recent change in the election code, failing to provide that information will not disqualify a ballot or keep it from being tallied, Baldwin said.

Legal or Not?

Prior to the 2018 change in the election code, harvesting ballots was expressly prohibited, and it may still be depending on how the law is interpreted.

According to Padilla’s office, official drop-boxes must be authorized and controlled by local elections officers, and operating an illegal drop-box is a felony that can carry a sentence of up to two years. In locations outside Tulare County where the GOP is harvesting votes, including at churches, drop-box locations have been intentionally mislabeled as official.

While state law still requires a voter’s authorized delivery agent and their relationship to the voter both be identified, ballots received without that authorization or supporting information cannot be disqualified under state law for that reason.

The state Republican Party is defending ballot harvesting, saying the change in authorized agent requirements allows it. Ironically, Republican members of the State Senate introduced legislation in May that would have made the practice expressly illegal, after blaming ballot harvesting for sweeping GOP losses in the 2018 midterm elections.

Democrats not hosting drop boxes

While the Tulare County Democratic Party is not hosting unofficial drop-boxes, Party Chair Suzanna Aguilera-Marrero defended using the practice as long as the law is followed.

“Harvesting is all right as long as the person who is voting gives permission, it’s OK,” she said. “We’re not doing that as a practice, but we’re encouraging anyone to help with people who don’t have transportation.”

Given the GOP’s past stance on ballot harvesting, Aguilera-Marrero said she hadn’t expected them to engage in it.

“I was surprised, also, they were doing it,” she said. “I haven’t seen any advertising about it.”

While the Tulare County Democratic Party is not actively harvesting ballots like their GOP counterpart, their volunteers are willing to help voters get their ballots to the Tulare County Elections Office.

“If they bring them, we’ll be happy to take them into the registrar’s office,” Aguilera-Marrero said. “These are unprecedented times. I want everyone to vote.”

GOP Defying Padilla

While Secretary of State Padilla has issued a cease-and-desist letter to the California GOP, the group’s leaders have announced their intention to continue to maintain private collection boxes, denying the practice is illegal. The South East Tulare County (SETCO) Republican Women’s Federated Office in Porterville continues to harvest ballots.

Wednesday afternoon, October 14–the same day Padilla’s letter was issued–a line of voters waited outside the SETCO office to drop off ballots. The local GOP’s office has been offering this as a service to Porterville residents, but it is a service that has not been authorized by the Tulare County Registrar of Voters Office.

“I don’t want to put them in a box. I want to hand them over to someone I trust,” said Christie Brown.

Brown, was in possession of at least eight mail-in ballots while her friend Lacey Sanchez was delivering two ballots. More than 10 additional people turned in ballots in a 15-minute period.

GOP-affiliated offices in Visalia are encouraging voters to hand in their ballots directly to the registrar’s office. Exeter’s Republican Women Federated does not have an election office this cycle.

100-plus Ballots Collected

Rae Dean Strawn, who manned the SETCO office on Wednesday, said the group has collected 106 ballots so far. She discovered four more ballots that had been shoved under the office door when SETCO opened after their lunch break.

“We just want everyone to vote,” Strawn said.

SETCO, she said, is collecting ballots because it believes the county’s official ballot drop-box–a mere two blocks away at the city’s transit center–isn’t secure. Strawn reiterated her group’s distrust of the elections office to do its job.

“We just don’t trust the official ballot boxes,” she said. “They aren’t guarded. There are homeless (people) around, and someone could put anything inside the box, like garbage.”

Strawn said the ballots are delivered to the county elections office in Visalia every day or two. Voters can also register Democrat or Republican at their office and everyone’s form is delivered said Strawn.

She also encouraged those who were delivering ballots to spread the word and gather more.

“Tell all of your friends to come by and hand in their ballots,” she said.

Catherine Doe contributed to this report.

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