SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Last weekend, California election officials said they learned Republicans had been using their own drop boxes to collect ballots from voters at churches, political offices and some businesses in Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno counties, which all have hotly contested congressional races.
Democrats and state officials said the boxes were misleading and threatened election security. The state contended the law only allows for secure drop boxes set up by local election officials and sent a letter ordering the state Republican Party to remove its boxes.
The GOP said it would change how the boxes were labeled to avoid confusion but would continue to use them to collect ballots under the state's rules allowing so-called ballot harvesting. Since then, Republican Party officials have repeatedly declined to say how many boxes they're still using or all the counties the boxes are located.
On ABC7 News at 3 p.m. Press Secretary of California's State Secretary Sam Mahood joined Anchor Kristen Sze to discuss voting concerns and said the unofficial drop boxes have been removed.
"I think there's a big gap with what they're saying and the press and what's actually happening," Mahood said in an interview. "There were some very troubling social media images of drop boxes that have been labeled 'official' that have been posted online. Reports have shown that those boxes have been removed and they've even admitted in writing that they're not going to have any boxes out there that are labeled "official" or any unsecured, unmanned, ballot drop boxes that can mislead the public."
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra said subpoenas were being issued to obtain information about the boxes, and urged anyone collecting ballots during the election to do so in line with the law.
But he wouldn't say whether the state GOP's purported plan to keep using boxes to collect ballots was legal.
"We may be told one thing in person or we may hear or receive reports of activities but until we get evidence of it we have to assume everyone is trying to comply with the law," Becerra told reporters.
The dispute has grabbed national attention and cast a spotlight on the way Californians are voting this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, all registered voters were mailed a ballot and can return them by mail or take them to an official drop box or voting location.
Voters also can turn their ballots over to someone else, and that person is supposed to print their name and signature on the ballot before turning it in.
"In California, yes, campaigns. You can stage ballot collections, but somebody has to know who they are signing their ballot over to," Mahood said.
He added, "I can't return my ballot to an unofficial, unmarked, unsecured unstaffed Dropbox. And really my message to voters in all of this is do not let this discourage you. There's been a lot of oxygen spent on this issue. But let's keep perspective here. 3.7 million Californians have already cast their vote by mail ballots. That is an absolutely huge number. "
Republicans said they believed the state's order this week was an attempt to intimidate their supporters, and that they corrected the "official" label as soon as they were made aware. Tom Hiltachk, the party's general counsel, said the GOP would direct its harvesters to sign the ballots where possible to show who was delivering them but that ballots in at least one county - Contra Costa - didn't include space for them to sign.
"There's no concession to the state because the state never asked us to concede anything," he told reporters.
Jessica Levinson, an election law professor at Loyola Law School, said it sounds like state officials may want more time to investigate and that Becerra, a Democrat, may be treading carefully to avoid being seen as partisan.
"He wants to make it clear that this isn't about punishing Republicans, it's about enforcing the law," she said. "If he can kind of take a step back and say, 'When I see it, we'll move forward,' that I think allows him to try and stay ever so slightly out of the political mudslinging."
Press secretary to California's State Secretary reminded voters, "It's important for voters to remember you are in ultimate control of your ballot, you have the decision, the ultimate power to decide how you're going to return that ballot. Every ballot in California comes with a prepaid postage return envelope and you can also walk it into any voting location, your county elections office, or an official ballot drop box or early drop-off location. More information can be found at the California Secretary of State website here.
Watch the interview with California Secretary of State's Press Secretary Sam Mahood in the media player above.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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