Rise in Use of Ballot Drop Boxes Sparks Partisan Battles

By: - October 16, 2020 12:00 am

In the presidential election four years ago, there were fewer free-standing ballot drop boxes, and they were uncontroversial. This year, as officials in many states expand use of the boxes amid a pandemic, they have become another flashpoint in the controversy over voting access.

Supporters of the expanded use of drop boxes say they make voting easier for people who are afraid to vote in person and fear their absentee ballots won’t be tallied if they send them through the mail. Opponents say they are worried about ballot security, despite little evidence that drop boxes are any less secure than other voting methods. It’s led to court cases, political back-and-forth and uncertainty for local election officials and voters.

Because many states lack specific rules about how many drop boxes are allowed per county, disputes over their numbers have sparked lawsuits in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all key states in the presidential election.  

In Texas, a federal appeals court this week upheld the Republican governor’s order limiting drop boxes to one per county, which Democrats see as voter suppression. California Republicans this week said they will continue to set up unofficial drop boxes for their supporters to use, despite state officials arguing the boxes are illegal.

Controversy over drop boxes stems from unease over the huge ramp-up in absentee voting during the pandemic and the unproven idea — fomented mostly by Republicans and President Donald Trump — that “if you have drop boxes it would be easier to do nefarious things,” said Charles Stewart III, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor who has studied election mechanics extensively and found no evidence of drop box misuse.

Democrats have mostly focused on expanding voting access and have called for more drop boxes. Republicans have argued there could be security problems.

“It’s gotten caught up in this puzzling politicization of balloting,” Stewart said in a phone interview.

Trump tweeted in August that drop boxes are “a voter security disaster,” and suggested they were easy to tamper with. However, in another tweet he waded into the California controversy over the unofficial boxes, encouraging his supporters to use them. “You mean only Democrats are allowed to do this? But haven’t Dems been doing this for years? See you in court. Fight hard Republicans!”

Nationwide, most drop boxes look like oversized postal boxes or delivery service collection bins. They generally are bolted to the ground and monitored by cameras or located near government buildings where they can be watched. The boxes are emptied by election workers regularly — the frequency depends on how many ballots are pushed into them — but at least daily, and sometimes hourly. Some states require election monitors from both major parties to be present during the transfer of the ballots from the box to the election office.

Stewart rejected the idea that efforts to remove or diminish the number of drop boxes is a naked move to tamp down voting by certain constituencies — Democrats in a state run by Republicans, for example, as in Texas.

“The difference is whether they feel security or access are the biggest problems,” he said, and conservatives are more likely to be concerned about security.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has been accused of trying to stifle Democratic votes by issuing a directive limiting ballot drop boxes to one per county. That strikes some Democrats as an effort to make voting harder for residents of the state’s sprawling metropolises, which tend to vote Democratic. Harris County, home to Houston, has a population of more than 4.7 million people and covers 1,777 square miles.

“I can’t think of any other reason to do this other than voter suppression,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, which filed suit against the state over the directive.

“It’s just purely politics,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “Texas has a long historic dedication to active voter suppression. Federal courts have generally forced them off their traditional voter suppression so now they depend on passive voter suppression … voter requirements, lack of drop boxes in an election that is expected to see surge in absentee voting.”

But Abbott spokesperson John Wittman, in an emailed statement to Stateline, said that by allowing one drop box per county, the governor “has expanded access to voting” by allowing drop boxes at all. Prior to the governor acting, voters who got absentee ballots could only mail them back or submit them in person on Election Day, under a Texas statute dating from the 1990s.

The drop boxes, Wittman said, expand the time voters can drop off the ballots “to include any time leading up to Election Day. That time period did not exist under current law.”

A federal appeals court ruled Oct. 12 that the one drop box per county is legal. Opponents were expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a similar case in Ohio, a federal appeals court Oct. 9 refused to allow multiple drop boxes in each county, citing an unwillingness to change the rules amid an election that is already underway. Ohio officials interpreted a 2008 state law regarding absentee voting to mean that a box could be set up near or in the election board’s offices to collect ballots.  

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that lower federal courts should ordinarily not alter election rules on the eve of an election … Here, the district court went a step further and altered election rules during an election,” the court opinion said.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, is following current law with the limitation of one box per county, according to a statement emailed to Stateline by his spokesperson Maggie Sheehan.

“This will be the first time in Ohio’s history that for a General Election, each county board of elections will have a secure receptacle for the return of absentee ballots,” she said. “We believe election reforms should be made at the statehouse, not the courthouse.”

She said LaRose would be willing to work with the legislature on new laws but would not elaborate on what LaRose thought those new laws should be.

But in Pennsylvania, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit from the Trump administration seeking to limit the use of drop boxes. U.S. District Court Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan, who wrote the opinion, was reluctant to second-guess the judgment of the state legislature and election officials and said the administration had not demonstrated widespread fraud would result.

All three of the court cases involved Republicans seeking to limit drop boxes — a limitation Democrats say is meant to tamp down the vote. But in California, Republicans set up unofficial drop boxes of their own outside churches and gun shops and other locations, and collected ballots. Those immediately became a target of California elections officials who ordered them removed Oct. 12. Republicans refused.

“As of right now, we’re going to continue our ballot harvesting program,” California Republican Party spokesperson Hector Barajas told California media. State officials issued a cease-and-desist order; Republicans expressed a desire to expand the program.

Drop boxes have been a “major part of the landscape” in states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington) that have entirely vote-by-mail elections, MIT’s Stewart said. But it took a while for voters to get comfortable with them, he said, with initial skepticism giving way to confidence over a period of years.

In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which Stewart called the “big three” of remote voting states, more than half of mail ballots were returned either to a drop box or to an election office in the 2016 presidential election, according to an MIT study. The study found that 73% of voters hand returned ballots in Colorado, 59% in Oregon and 65% in Washington.

Before 2020, eight states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington — had explicit laws about drop boxes. In practice, however, the boxes are allowed in 40 states, though they were rarely used until this year’s explosion of absentee ballots. Just 10 states will not offer drop boxes at all.

Axel Hufford, a Stanford law student who authored a white paper on drop box use in the 2020 elections for healthyelections.org, a joint project between Stanford and MIT, said the use of drop boxes is expected to be the highest in history this year and said claims of voter fraud surrounding the receptacles do not appear to be based in historical experience.

“I don’t see why drop boxes should be any more controversial than vote-by-mail generally,” he said in a phone interview. “A lot of voters want a safe, secure and viable way to vote without interacting with other voters.”

But there is angst among voters using some boxes for the first time.

Renee Connell, a 51-year-old substitute school librarian from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, dropped her absentee ballot into a box at an auxiliary election office in a partially occupied strip mall just down the street from a county building.

“There was a fold-out table, with a metal box, about the size of a cereal box, which kind of threw me,” she said in a phone interview. “Because it was so little, I couldn’t get it [the ballot] all the way in.”

Spotsylvania County’s director of elections, Kellie Acors, said in a phone interview that the small boxes are under video surveillance and emptied by officials twice a day. The ballots are “put into another secure container so we can scan them and put them in [the system].” She said voters also can hand deliver ballots on Election Day.

Connell said she was anxious about leaving her ballot in the small box, so much so that she used the tracking number on her ballot to check the Virginia Department of Elections website to make sure it had gotten there. “I checked and indeed, our ballots have been received,” she said in a follow-up text. “Phew!”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.