Undercover video taken at a GOP campaign headquarters in California and "Trump Store" selling merchandise featuring the president shows store employees describing an operation to collect ballots in an unofficial ballot box. It also shows them offering to store ballots for voters in a safe, ostensibly because the ballot box had been moved off premises for ballots to be delivered.
The video was taken at a location in Newport Beach, California, by a citizen who sent the video along with a complaint to the Orange County Registrar of Voters. It was obtained by VICE News in a public records request from that office. The California GOP has defended its use of the ballot boxes and continued to use them, saying they’re legal under California’s ballot collection law, despite a cease-and-desist from Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The video in question was taken after the cease-and-desist was ordered, according to the person who filed a complaint.
The video shows several women in a store full of Make America Great Again hats, Blue Lives Matter flags, and other merchandise before the camera is covered up.
The person taking the video asks if there’s a ballot box at the location, to which someone else responds: “Yes.” Two women speaking with her reassure her that “it’s very safe” to drop her ballot off at that location. When the person recording the video mentions that she saw the physical ballot box in the headquarters previously, the campaigners respond: “Right, so it’s being delivered.”
“They physically pick up the box and take it and deliver it,” one of them says. If a ballot is dropped off while the ballot box isn’t there, she adds, “We lock it in our safe.”
The videographer then asks a few follow up questions about how she can be sure her vote is counted: “I hate to be so paranoid,” she says.
“Better to be paranoid than to, you know, throw your vote away,” an employee of the store responds.
An October 12 email sent by the unnamed videographer to the Orange County Registrar of Voters included a picture of the ballot box taken the previous day. “Then I returned today and asked the same question,” the person said. “The box was gone from the sales floor, but I was told by two people working that I could hand them my ballot because they have an official ballot box in the back of the store in a safe. I shot this video of them explaining.”
“PLEASE INVESTIGATE!!!” the person pleaded. The video was forwarded to Orange County registrar of voters Neal Kelley by a deputy, who described it as “more drop box evidence.”
“We take the ballots just like all the other places, and we don’t have an official ballot box, we have an unofficial ballot box,” Libby Huyck, the chair of the Newport Harbor Republican Women group which runs the store, told VICE News Tuesday. “We put [the ballots] immediately into the safe.”
“We have the left stealing votes left and right. It’s just a matter of getting a grand jury to come in and investigate which they will once Trump is re-elected,” she added. Huyck declined to comment further, claiming VICE News “writes mean things about us.”
“This will be looked at as part of our on-going investigation with the California Department of Justice,” Padilla spokesperson Sam Mahood told VICE News in a statement.
California’s ballot collection law was amended in 2016 to allow any authorized person, including campaign workers and volunteers, to collect completed absentee ballots on behalf of voters and submit them to elections offices. The state GOP sued over the law earlier this year and has described it as “ballot harvesting.”
But the party and its local affiliates have set up ballot boxes at locations including gun ranges and churches in at least four California counties, initially marking some of them as “official” ballot boxes before agreeing to drop that label after complaints from Padilla and Becerra. The GOP has pledged to keep using the boxes, arguing that they’re legal under the ballot collection law. A trove of emails obtained by VICE News using a freedom of information request shows that citizens in the county have repeatedly complained about these ballot boxes, are confused by them, and that various organizations in the state are highly concerned by them. One box, run by the "Republican Club" at the Leisure World retirement community, has confused multiple voters, according to emails to the registrar of voters.
"My husband and I live in Leisure World in Seal Beach where an official ballot drop box is located," one woman wrote to the registrar of voters. "This morning, my husband drove past a certain party's tent which had a sign for an official ballot drop box as well. Is this a legitimate ballot drop box or could this be some sort of ballot harvesting tactic? I just don't understand how this can be official when there is already an official drop box on the same street."
"We have received reports of a political club at Leisure World that has a ballot drop box. I would like additional information about this as it is concerning and can cause confusion for voters," Espie Martinez, of the registrar of voters, wrote, apparently to a Leisure World representative (the name was redacted on the email). That person responded, stating that the box was owned by a "Republican club," that the box had been "cleared" with the Registrar of Voters, and that it was "legal and permissible."
However, Neal Kelley, the registrar of voters for the county, said in an email to Martinez that the box is "in violation of CA law" unless it was staffed at all times. The Republican Club eventually agreed to change its policies to be in compliance with California law, according to a back-and-forth email exchange included in the documents. The registrar of voters said that it had worked with Leisure World to install an official collection box to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
"During the March Primary Election, we were notified that there was a political club within Leisure World collecting ballots on behalf of voters, and returning them at the nearby Vote Center," Martinez wrote in an email. "That was part of the reason we worked with Leisure World Seal Beach management to secure an Official Ballot Drop Box within the community for voters. Do you happen to have a photo or are you able to take a photo of the sign about the tent for the group collecting ballots? It is against the law to falsely impersonate an Election Official."
Last week, Becerra sued the state GOP for a list of names and contact information of every voter who dropped off their ballots at one of these boxes in order to make sure their ballots are counted. The state GOP has declined to cooperate, with a spokesperson calling Becerra’s move an “abuse of power.”
“The California Republican Party responded and objected to the attorney general’s subpoenas on numerous grounds, including the right to privacy,” spokesperson Hector Barajas told the Los Angeles Times last week. “We will stand up to this type of authoritarian bullying tactics.”
Update: This article has been updated with comment from Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office.