A pastor in California is facing criticism after encouraging parishioners to turn in their ballots to an unauthorized drop box deployed outside the church by the state’s Republican Party.
Jerry Cook, the lead pastor of Freedom’s Way Baptist Church in Santa Clarita, said in a sermon on Sunday that there was “no problem” with the unofficial ballot box, though several California state authorities have called it and others like it misleading and illegal.
“Freedom’s Way Baptist provides the option to its parishioners to drop off their ballot in a safe location,” he said. “Isn’t church pretty safe? In a safe location with people they trust rather than handing it over to a stranger who knocks on their door, which is something called ballot harvesting.”
Cook did not address where the ballots that may have been deposited in the box would be taken.
He also pushed back on allegations of ballot tampering from California’s attorney general and others, after several residents reported the unofficial box.
“They are suggesting that something nefarious is happening with the ballots here, that perhaps the pastor of the church is counting the ballots and looking through and saying ‘that’s a Biden voter, we’re going to throw that away’ and then we’re going to go ahead and go with the Trump voters,” he said.
“That isn’t the case because not only are we a safe and secure place, but we’re also an honest place.”
Cook told his parishioners he is “not worried” about which candidate they particularly vote for, but emphasized they should “vote right” and vote with “biblical and American values.”
A local resident reported the box at the church
A local resident reported seeing a photo of the unauthorized box on Cook’s Facebook page and alerted county officials, CNN affiliate KCBS reported on Saturday.
Taped to the gray metal container was a sign reading, “Official Ballot Drop Box.”
“Our church has a voting drop box in front of our complex — if you are voting early, drop your ballot on by,” Cook wrote in the caption of the post, according to KCBS.
The box has since been removed from its original location, KCBS reported.
The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder County Clerk responded to several reports about the box on Twitter, saying that it did not comply with state regulations. A spokesperson for the office told CNN that it had attempted to reach Cook and had reported the issue to the secretary of state’s office.
CNN has reached out to Cook for comment.
The state does not, however, authorize the use of non-official vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes. Only county elections officials have the authority to designate the location, hours of operation, and number of drop boxes in the county, according to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
Any person who provides a ballot drop box other than a county or state election official could be guilty of a felony and subject to two to four years of imprisonment, according to the state’s elections code.
California sends cease and desist to state GOP
The California Secretary of State and Department of Justice have sent a cease and desist order to the state’s Republican Party to remove more than a dozen unofficial ballot drop boxes placed in at least three counties, officials said on Monday.
In its letter, the state cited the box at the Freedom’s Way Baptist Church as one of several examples of unauthorized ballot boxes.
“These unauthorized drop boxes are a disservice to state and local election administrators who have spent months working on the placement and deployment of official ballot drop boxes,” Padilla said.
The California Republican Party has said that the unofficial boxes amount to an opportunity for “friends, family, and patrons to drop off their ballot with someone they know and trust.”
Fresno County GOP Chairman Fred Vanderhoof also maintained in an interview with CNN that the party wasn’t doing anything wrong.
Neal Kelley, Registrar of Voters for Orange County, told CNN that voters should use only official county drop boxes, which meet the state’s security standards and bear the official county elections logo.
As CNN has reported, certified ballot drop boxes are widely considered to be a safe way to return ballots directly to election officials that allows voters to bypass the US Postal Service.
CNN’s Sarah Moon, Stella Chan and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.