AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The California Republican Party has installed more than 50 of its own ballot boxes around the state, which prompted a cease-and-desist letter yesterday from California's top elections official, Alex Padilla. He says the boxes are illegal and ordered them removed. Now, with the election just three weeks away, the state's Republican Party says it won't back down and might even install more of its own ballot boxes. I'm joined now by party spokesman Hector Barajas.
Welcome to the program.
HECTOR BARAJAS: Thank you.
CORNISH: I want to start with the secretary of state, Mr. Padilla, because he spoke to NPR's Morning Edition. And he drew a distinction between the official drop boxes that are allowed by state law and what your party has set up.
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ALEX PADILLA: Official ballot drop boxes have to meet 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 by whom. You have none of these security measures when you're dealing with unauthorized drop boxes.
CORNISH: What's your response to that?
BARAJAS: Well, I think he's confusing the drop boxes. See; the drop boxes that the California Republican Party has put forth - they reside inside of a business, or they reside inside of our own campaign headquarters. They're not outside next to a mailbox. They're not outside in front of a supermarket.
CORNISH: Why is that distinction meaningful?
BARAJAS: Because this is ballot harvesting, right? The way California law was written four years ago in 2016, you can have individuals that go to your house, collect your ballot, leave it in the trunk of their car, put it in their home or garage. And yet the secretary of state has never brought up a question as to where those ballots are stored or...
CORNISH: Well, we should note that this ballot collection law does have rules around it. You do have to show the chain of collection, so to speak, like, sort of who has it at any given time for ballot security reasons. Is that something you're doing? Is that something you can show to the voters who have given you their ballots already?
BARAJAS: We can. We - the ballots that are collected in these boxes that are within the - our own campaign headquarters or within other places of business. We have individuals that go out there three times a week to gather the ballots and then take them to the registrar of voters. And so...
CORNISH: How many boxes do you have at this point?
BARAJAS: Well, we are not providing any information on the amount of boxes or the locations. I mean, this is all part of our own campaign strategy and ballot harvesting program that the Democrats put in place four years ago.
CORNISH: So is it about security or political strategy?
BARAJAS: Well, the chain of command is obviously about security and making sure that, you know...
CORNISH: But locations wouldn't be, right? I mean, I guess I'm trying to understand your reluctance to share what you're doing if it's on the up and up.
BARAJAS: Well, like I said, we've got them inside of our own campaign headquarters. So you can look at our different campaign headquarters, and you can find the boxes there. Right now, the way California set up its laws four years ago, the Democrats wrote the legislation for ballot harvesting. They wrote the rules. They set up the chessboard. We are now playing in the chessboard with the rules that they set up.
CORNISH: Just to clarify, you mentioned that these are offices of the party, but it's also been reported that they're at churches, in gun shops.
BARAJAS: Yes, we do have some of these ballot boxes in some of the churches.
CORNISH: But if you're at your church or your gun shop, thinking that it's official when it's clearly not, is that fair to that voter?
BARAJAS: If I'm going to my church or I'm going to a gun shop, for example, and there's a box there where they're collecting ballots, I'm going to trust that that place that I frequent is going to be able to take over - take my ballot over to the county registrar of voters.
CORNISH: We're just a few weeks out from the election. Do you want to be in court battling this out?
BARAJAS: Well, we don't believe in voter suppression. We believe that the secretary of state is engaging in voter suppression. We believe - we're trying to get...
CORNISH: Wait. So you're saying it's suppression by taking this one option off the table, your private boxes?
BARAJAS: Well, if you take an opportunity for me to go to my church to be able to drop off my ballot there, that just makes it a little bit more difficult for the people of California, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.
CORNISH: So it sounds like you are ready to go to court over this.
BARAJAS: We are ready to go to court over this because we're going to make sure that we protect the options for individuals to be able to turn in their ballots, whether it's at this box, or we're going to - you know, we believe in fair play. If Democrats have been able to do this for the last four years - now that Republicans are doing it, all of a sudden, the secretary of state seems to have a problem with it.
CORNISH: The Fresno County Republican Party has pledged to remove the unauthorized boxes there. Is this something you're going to encourage other counties to follow suit at all?
BARAJAS: No, we're going to give them the option. And we may actually be expanding the program. I mean, look. And we've been honest with folks, as - you know, was the labeling the smartest thing or the best thing we did? No. The labeling itself will be - we'll be removing some of the boxes, changing some of the labeling and still providing that option for individuals to put their ballots in these boxes. And, you know, we've been caught, you know, between a rock and a hard place. Republicans have been against this, and we've been against ballot harvesting. And so we can either whine about it and complain about it, or we can, you know, say, OK, what are the rules? How did they set it up? How do we get to do the same thing that the Democrats have been doing? And that's what we're doing right now.
CORNISH: That's California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas.
Thank you for your time.
BARAJAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.