California officials said on Monday they were sending cease-and-desist orders to state Republican leaders demanding removal of "unofficial, unauthorized" ballot collection boxes placed by the party in at least three counties in violation of election law.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, both Democrats, said only county election officials can operate ballot drop boxes according to state law.
"Unofficial, unauthorized drop boxes are not permitted in the state of California," Padilla, whose office oversees election regulations and enforcement in the state, told reporters in a teleconference from Sacramento.
A spokesman for the California Republican Party, Hector Barajas, admitted the party had set up an unspecified number of its own ballot drop-off boxes "statewide," but said it was allowed to do so under laws enacted by the Democratic-controlled state legislature.
"We're not going to stop this program," he told Reuters.
Drop-off sites were designed to allow voters to personally submit ballots in advance rather than have to depend on timely mail delivery, while letting voters avoid polling places that could pose a risk of coronavirus exposure on Election Day, Nov. 3.
Giving voters the option of turning their ballots in to a secure collection site ahead of the election assumed greater urgency after the US Postal Service warned that election mail could be delayed this year.
Padilla said the cease-and-desist notice sent to state Republican leaders and party officials in Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange counties gives them until Oct. 15 to remove the collection boxes in question or face legal action.
"Tampering with the vote is illegal, and anyone who knowingly engages in the tampering or misuse of a vote is subject to prosecution," Becerra said. "You have a right to vote and you have a right to know that your vote will be counted the right way."
Earlier in the day, a spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office said prosecutors had opened an investigation into reports that unofficial drop boxes had been placed in at least two locations there, one of them by a county Republican official.
"It's our understanding that they've already been removed, but we're trying to determine that," the spokeswoman, Kimberly Edds, told Reuters.