Santana: Amidst Record Voter Turnout, OC DA Probes His Own Party Over Ballot Harvesting

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

An ballot drop box in front of the Orange County Registrar of Voters headquarters in Santa Ana on Tuesday, Aug. 18. 2020.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

Subscribe now to receive emails letting you know about his latest work.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is on the hunt for Republican ballots.

Over the weekend, Spitzer’s Republican Party colleagues came under direct fire from State Attorney General Xavier Bacerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, both top Democrats, for the party’s approach to ballot harvesting, across the state and in Spitzer’s own backyard.

On Monday, Spitzer announced he was launching an investigation.

Voter turnout as of the second week of voting is going viral.

OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley announced in a recent tweet that there had been a 450 percent increase in the amount of ballots returned the first week of voting, going from the last tally of 11,000 to over 60,000 ballots.

Most of those ballots, according to local election tallies, are Democratic with 32,788 Democrat ballots already returned compared to 19,027 ballots cast by Republicans this first week of voting in Orange County.

“It’s a lot easier to vote at home,” said Kelley, who wonders if the surge is the result of coronavirus concerns about voting in person combined with deep interest in this election.

Kelley called 65,000 ballots returned in the first week, “unheard of” saying other counties are seeing similar rates of early ballot returns.

That kind of Blue wave phenomenon has also put a laser focus on Republican ballot harvesting efforts, trying to keep up.

A series of viral tweets, along with reports to state and local elections officials about private, ballot drop off sites being utilized by GOP officials over the weekend, prompted top state elections officials to hold an abrupt press conference Monday, announcing a cease and desist letter to state Republican Party leaders and county chairs, like Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker.

The letter called on California Republican leaders to “cease and desist the coordination, use and/or fast or misleading promotion of unauthorized and non-official vote by mail drop boxes.”

State elections officials wrote to Republican leaders – attaching photos of signs advertising ballot drop off sites – advising them they had been receiving complaints and warning them that under state law “only county elections officials have the authority to determine the number, locations and hours of vote by mail drop boxes and county elections officials ensure that authorized drop boxes comply with strict requirements that help ensure the security of returned vote by mail ballots.”

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker and California Republican Party Spokesman Hector Barajas didn’t respond to requests for comment.

However, in a statement sent out to reporters, state Republican leaders said their actions were within state law.

“In California, where you can have convicted felons and individuals with a criminal history go door to door and collect ballots from voters, Democrats are now upset because organizations, individuals and groups are offering an opportunity for their friends, family, and patrons to drop off their ballot with someone they know and trust. The Democrat anger is overblown when state law allows organizations, volunteers or campaign workers to collect completed ballots and drop them off at polling places or election offices.

“If Democrats are so concerned with ballot harvesting, they are the ones who wrote the legislation, voted for it, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. California Republicans would be happy to do away with ballot harvesting.”

California does allow third parties to help voters fill out their vote by mail ballots and even turn them in on their behalf.

The key under state law, for the practice to be legal, according to state and local elections officials, is that an individual must attest in writing on the envelope that they are going to deliver the ballot to the Registrar of Voters.

Under state law, any person gathering ballots has 72 hours to turn them in.

State law is silent on what kind of container they are in during that three-day window.

It’s unclear how the local Republicans worked their ballot harvesting events, whether specific people took responsibility for transporting the ballots and then they just put them in these black, metal lockable boxes — photos of which were shared all over Twitter on the weekend until the posts were taken down.

Republicans aren’t talking, except for on Twitter.

In a series of Tweets over the weekend, it’s pretty clear that they don’t think they’ve crossed a legal line.

Yet after reviewing the facts in this situation, Spitzer’s office decided to move forward with an investigation, announced on Monday.

Once that investigation is complete, a comprehensive legal review will be done to determine whether criminal charges are warranted, Spitzer’s office said Monday in a release.

“Your vote is your voice,” Spitzer said in his release. “The right to vote is one of our most sacred rights, and I will not tolerate anyone interfering with someone’s ability to have their voice heard in our democratic process. The residents of Orange County can rest assured that the District Attorney’s Office and the Registrar of Voters have assembled an elite team dedicated to protecting your right to vote. Anyone who chooses to violate any section of the election code in Orange County and interfere with the sanctity of the election will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Spitzer would not comment beyond his press release, which noted that his office “has a dedicated team of prosecutors and investigators who are specifically trained in election law violations, including election fraud. That team has conducted training for the Registrar of Voters staff as well as Orange County law enforcement on how to recognize potential election fraud. OCDA prosecutors are available 24/7 to provide assistance to the Registrar of Voters and local law enforcement regarding election law violations.”

Indeed, Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley – now administering his 82nd election since taking the helm at the local elections office in 2004 – credited Spitzer’s office for being quick to respond to calls for help once complaints started coming in.

“The District Attorney has been super cooperative,” Kelley said, adding “I appreciate the support.”

But there are others who question whether Spitzer – who has come recently under fire for being so slow to respond to questions about the residency of OC Supervisor Andrew Do – can really conduct an effective and timely investigation into his partisan colleagues.

Indeed, there’s a stark difference in how local DA investigators handled residency complaints against Democratic Santa Ana City Council Roman Reyna, who was put under surveillance – something never utilized in Do’s case.

“I want to see it,” said the response from Orange County Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceño about Spitzer’s promise for a fair probe.

Briceño and other Democratic Party activists suspect that Republican leaders are trying to create confusion about the use of ballot box drop offs because they are getting beaten so soundly at the polls and trying to create confusion around the new laws on ballot drop off.

“Orange County has a strong record of voter suppression,” said Briceño noting prior instances where Republican Party leaders had to pay out nearly half a million dollar in legal settlements over allegations they used poll guards in 1998 to suppress Latino voters.

Brinceño said Democratic Party leaders expect answers from law enforcement.

“We are waiting for them to tell us what’s going to happen here.”

Based on the letter from the Secretary of State and Attorney General, it seems pretty clear to me that law enforcement will likely be on the hunt for ballots here, to see what actually happened to the ballots dropped off at these Republican-sponsored vote centers.

“We are aware that voters have already dropped off their ballots in these unauthorized vote by mail drop boxes. Please contact our office to arrange to provide county elections officials with the names, addresses and birth date information of those voters who have dropped off their ballot in these unauthorized drop boxes by close of business on Thursday, October 15, 2020.,” reads the Oct. 12 letter. “The County Registrars of Voters will contact these individuals to advise them of their options to verify the return status of their vote by mail ballot.”