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Ballot box battle from the 2020 election might spark a new state law in ’21

State Sen. Tom Umberg is confident that if the bill he’s pitching as a way to boost voter protections had been in place last fall, someone from the California Republican Party would be facing criminal penalties today.

But as it stands, the issue Democrat Umberg hopes to fix — the clear labeling of ballot drop boxes — remains a legal gray area, with nobody of either political party facing legal problems connected to drop boxes from the 2020 election.

The incident that got Umberg interested in the topic happened nearly seven months ago. That’s when the California GOP deployed unofficial drop boxes at political offices, churches, gun shops and other locations throughout the state as a way to collect ballots for the November election.

While it’s legal in California to collect ballots from voters and turn them in, there are restrictions on how such ballots are handled. And online photos circulating in the weeks prior to the November election suggested that the ballot boxes set up by the GOP — at least initially — didn’t follow the guidelines. One photo showed a mobile drop box on a Castaic sidewalk (a potential violation), and another showed a box in Orange County that had been inaccurately labeled as “official.”

The GOP said the word “official” was quickly removed, and that any boxes shown outside were only there in transit, insisting that their deployment of ballot drop boxes was allowed under California’s permissive ballot collection laws. Still, those early reports about the boxes triggered criminal investigations, international headlines and legal tensions between state authorities the California Republican Party.

But state and local authorities eventually dropped all investigations after the Attorney General’s office said it gained confidence that all collected ballots were counted and that ballot handling guidelines would be followed going forward.

The controversy isn’t over, though.

A GOP staffer who last fall was the face of the scandal — he’d posted a photo of himself using the party’s “official” ballot drop box in Orange County — is now raising funds to sue for defamation over the incident.

And the California Republican Party has indicated it plans to use the same ballot box strategy to collect votes during the election to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom this fall and in next year’s regular elections.

“As we did successfully in 2020, we will have a robust (get out the vote) operation this cycle, in accordance with all state laws,” said Ellie Hockenbury, spokesperson for the state GOP. “Those efforts helped us flip four Congressional seats and an Assembly seat last year, will help us recall the worst governor in California history this year, and will help us win back the House and make Kevin McCarthy Speaker of the House next year.”

Then there’s Umberg’s Senate Bill 35, which has passed the State Senate on a 29-2 vote and is now making its way through the Assembly.

Umberg said he authored the bill after reading stories about the controversial ballot drop boxes, and another story about an apparently unofficial polling station that Republicans organized in Westminster for last election day.

The Orange County District Attorney recently closed its investigation into the Westminster incident, and agency spokesperson Kimberly Edds said this week that no criminal charges were filed.

Umberg’s bill would make it illegal for anyone to use the word “official” on an unofficial ballot drop box, or to otherwise promote “an unofficial ballot box that is likely to deceive a voter into believing the voter is placing a ballot into a secure collection box that has been approved by an elections official.”

The bill also would double the minimum distance between where voting is taking place and where electioneering is allowed, bumping it from 100 to 200 feet, to prevent any harassment of voters.

Criminal penalties for violating existing voting laws would also apply to violators of SB 35’s provisions, meaning an offender could be fined as much as $1000, or serve up to three years in prison, or both.

Umberg said he hopes the law will dissuade people from even pushing the boundaries of ballot collection, and that criminal penalties won’t be needed.

Though other states recently have passed laws aimed at limiting voting, Umberg noted election law in California typically pushes for more access, not less.

“Contrary to the trends in other parts of the country, we in California at least can make sure voters who are eligible to vote have the opportunity and have confidence that their ballots will be safely counted,” he said.

The 2020 elections by and large went very smoothly, Umberg and elections officials have said. But, he added, something new always pops up.

“A year ago I never would have thought, ‘Someone is going to put a drop box … in front of their office, and call it ‘official.’ I would have thought, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ Sure enough, it happened.

“You can’t tell what the next bad idea might be,” he added. “But when we see it, we have to address it.”

Even if SB 35 passes the Assembly and is signed by Newsom, it won’t affect this year’s recall election. Because it’s not an urgency ordinance, SB 35 wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1.

Officials for the both Attorney General and Secretary of State said their offices are still reviewing pending legislation and haven’t taken a position on SB 35.

Meanwhile, the man who last year became the face of the California Republican Party’s use of drop boxes to collect ballots has raised nearly $6,000, money that he says will help pay the legal fees for his planned defamation suits and for related public relations efforts.

In October, when Jordan Tygh, 29, of Laguna Beach, was a regional field director for the state GOP, working in the 48th District to support Rep. Michelle Steel’s campaign, he tweeted a photo of himself kneeling in front of a metal container labeled “Official ballot drop off box.” He said the goal was to get Republican voters to use the drop box, and he urged voters to direct message him for directions.

That tweet — and reports of similar boxes popping up throughout California — soon drew coverage from international media, and Tygh’s photo was seen everywhere from CNN to “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

Tygh won’t yet say who he plans to sue, though his GoFundMe page says he believes he has “strong defamation and slander claims against many media personalities, left wing organizations, and notable political figures.” He paid $1,500 in April to retain legal help from the office of Harmeet Dhillon, a conservative attorney who’s led the charge in pushing back against Newsom’s stay-at-home orders.

“Despite no criminal wrongdoing, military service and a clean record, I’m still working to clean up the damage from this reputational assault,” Tygh says on his GoFundMe page.

“I fully plan on striking back and holding them accountable.”


Source: Orange County Register

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