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California Secretary of State Alex Padilla called operating ‘unofficial ballot drop boxes’ a ‘violation of state law.’

Photo: Mindy Schauer/Zuma Press

California’s top election official on Monday said ballot drop-off boxes recently set up by the state Republican Party at locations including outside churches and campaign headquarters are illegal.

Though voters in California can designate someone else to submit their ballot, the state’s top election officials said the GOP drop boxes improperly resembled official ones set up by county governments.

“Operating unofficial ballot drop boxes—especially those misrepresented as official drop boxes—is not just misleading to voters, it’s a violation of state law,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement on Monday.

Hector Barajas, a California GOP spokesman, said the party has no plans to remove the boxes, which have been operating in multiple California counties for weeks. He said it is the party’s answer to laws the Democratic-controlled legislature have passed that Republicans believe make it too easy for people to pass their ballot off to others.

“The way Democrats wrote the law, if we wanted to use a Santa bag, we could,” Mr. Barajas said. “A locked heavy box seems a lot safer.”

Nationally, a record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

California has sent every eligible voter a ballot to vote by mail this year. President Trump has said widespread voting through unsolicited mail ballots will allow for fraud. Researchers have found instances of absentee voter fraud, but studies show it isn’t widespread and election officials say they employ safeguards.

A 2016 California law allows voters in the state to designate a person to return their ballot for them. A 2018 state law further clarified that a ballot cannot be disqualified if the person authorized to return the ballot doesn’t provide their identification, signature and relationship to the voter.

These laws allow for union activists, campaign volunteers and others to collect mail ballots. GOP officials have decried the practice as “ballot harvesting” and said they have led to an unfair advantage for Democrats.

Some GOP candidates in competitive congressional and state house races in California’s Orange County collected and submitted ballots from supporters in 2018. Republicans lost many of those races.

Mr. Barajas, the state GOP spokesman, cited the state laws as justification for the party’s new drop boxes.

“The Democrats amended the law to remove all of the restrictions on WHO can harvest ballots and provided NO rules about HOW ballots can be collected except that someone cannot be compensated per-ballot,” Mr. Barajas wrote in a statement. He added that the state party’s program “goes above and beyond, is less coercive and more secure than other methods of collecting ballots.”

He declined to say how many ballot boxes Republicans have set up across California.

Write to Alejandro Lazo at alejandro.lazo@wsj.com and Christine Mai-Duc at christine.maiduc@wsj.com

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Appeared in the October 13, 2020, print edition as ‘GOP Drop Boxes for Vote Called Illegal.’