Hand putting ballot envelope into Jefferson County Colorado ballot drop box
Credit: iStock

There’s good and bad news for states and municipalities fighting the Trump administration’s efforts to slow the Postal Service and stymie the election. The good news is that there’s an alternative way for voters to deliver their ballots without mailing them back or going to a polling place. They can place them in a so-called drop box, secure receptacles where ballots are collected by election officials. Think of a return box at your local library.

The bad news is that Trump and the Republicans are going after those, too. Last weekend, the president tweeted that drop boxes were a “voter security disaster” that are “not Covid sanitized. A big fraud!” (Twitter flagged the post for spreading misinformation that could dissuade people from voting.)

Trump’s tweet reflects yet another Republican tactic to make it harder for people to vote this November. In numerous states under GOP control, officials are restricting the use of drop boxes. In Ohio, the Republican-controlled legislature rushed through emergency legislation in March that allowed only one drop box per county, meaning there would just be one receptacle for more than one million voters in the densely populated Cuyahoga County, which includes the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland. Conversely, Vinton County with a population of just 13,400 would also have one drop box. It was signed into law by Republican Governor Mike DeWine. In Missouri, Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has refused to distribute 85 drop boxes that the state has already paid for and is holding in storage. In Tennessee, GOP Secretary of State Tre Hargett has likely scared off voters from using drop boxes. He said in July that doing so would violate state law. In Iowa, Republican Secretary of State has said that drop boxes can’t be used.

Even in states not under GOP control, Republican attempts to limit the use of drop boxes are having success. In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign is filing lawsuits in both state and federal court that, among other things, questions the legality of drop boxes.

According to one Pennsylvania election official, the lawsuits have scared counties off from ordering drop boxes, for fear that the cost of litigation would eat up precious funds for running the election, at a time when revenues are tight. Officials are also worried about buying and distributing the boxes, only to be told they are not allowed. “I think that the lawsuits have definitely given a lot of the counties pause while there is an outstanding legal question,” Lisa Schaeffer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, told me. Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, one of the most Democratic cities in the state, as of now plans to have just one drop box available to its 1.2 million residents.

At the same time, the entire state of North Carolina, despite having a Democratic Governor and a Democratic Secretary of State, will not have any drop boxes, either. That’s because of a 2019 law that places tight restrictions on voting from home. It came after a 2018 incident in which a Republican operative was caught committing election fraud with absentee ballots.

“North Carolina law requires that absentee ballots that are dropped off be logged in by the county Board of Elections,” the State Board of Elections’ spokesman, Patrick Gannon, told me. “They have a log of who dropped it off, whose ballot it is. The law requires that only a person or a near relative or legal guardian can possess or drop off a ballot for an individual. Drop boxes would not allow that law to be followed.” (North Carolinians are permitted to return their ballots at early voting sites, which are open for 17 days.)

Of course, when that bill was written, nobody knew of a looming pandemic. But when voting rights activists pushed recently for changes to the code to allow for drop boxes because of the coming surge of mail-in voting, Republicans who control the state legislature refused.

Then, several advocacy groups filed a lawsuit to change the state’s election laws. A U.S. District Court Judge appointed by George W. Bush did grant one of the plaintiffs’ requests—to let voters cure any problems that may arise with their mailed-in ballots—but he did not rule in favor of creating “contactless drop boxes for absentee ballots.”

Republicans are making it hard to vote even where drop boxes are set up and working. In Ohio, for example, each county’s drop box will be located outside of that county’s board of elections buildings. That sounds innocuous enough, but consider Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati. It recently moved its board of elections site from downtown Cincinnati to the northern part of the city, making it much harder to access without a car.

“A single drop box in perhaps non-centrally located areas of a county is detrimental, especially, most likely, to communities of color, poor communities, communities that rely on public transportation and can’t take work off to cast their ballot in the drop box,” said Collin Marozzi, policy strategist for the ACLU of Ohio.

In response, Ohio Democrats sued Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose to force a rescission of his guidance to allow only one drop box per county, based on the emergency bill passed in March.

In Pennsylvania, a U.S. district court issued a stay on the Trump campaign’s federal lawsuit while the state court case moves forward, leaving election officials in limbo about whether they should purchase and plan to disseminate the receptacles. “Obviously, some clarity on how counties are able to use drop boxes before November would be greatly appreciated,” Schaeffer said.

It’s understandable why Republicans trying to hamper vote by mail would attack drop boxes: They are hugely popular. In Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, 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 survey. That’s why the more accurate term for the system is actually “vote at home,” rather than vote by mail.

“Many voters receive their ballots by mail, but they do not cast their ballot by mail,” said Chris Mann, a voting expert at Skidmore College. “Voting by mail is a misnomer for a huge number of voters. People receive their ballot by mail and then return it some other way. A lot of people want to do this because they don’t quite trust the Postal Service.”

If anything, trust in the USPS has only weakened since Trump’s postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a major GOP donor, enacted a raft of changes with the stated aim of reducing costs, like cutting overtime pay for postal workers, that dramatically delayed mail delivery nationwide. DeJoy said last week he would suspend those changes until after the election, but he also said that he would not restore the machines or boxes the agency removed.

Unfortunately, the damage he has done is likely irreversible before Election Day. DeJoy’s spree of destruction, therefore, makes the fair and widespread use of drop boxes essential this fall.

There are currently more than 180 coronavirus-related election lawsuits pending, many of which with drop boxes at their center. And with Mitch McConnell refusing to take up a House bill that would direct $25 billion in federal aid to help states and municipalities switch to vote by mail, some philanthropic dollars are being funneled to cover costs. The nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, for instance, recently gave Philadelphia a $10 million grant to open more polling places across the city and distribute 15 additional drop boxes.

That’s a good start, but it won’t be enough for the nation’s election officials to surmount the GOP’s multi-front war on voting.

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a staff writer for Time magazine.