Voting ballot: Absentee voting by mail with ballot envelope
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In June, the Justice Department sued Pennsylvania’s secretary of state and the state’s 67 county election boards to limit the way absentee ballots can be submitted in November. It argued that ballot drop boxes—secure receptacles where ballots are collected by election officials—are not only dangerously susceptible to voter fraud, but unconstitutional.

The complaint, filed in both federal and state court, sought to block counties from accepting absentee ballots unless they are mailed by voters, either through the U.S. Postal Service or another courier, like FedEx or UPS, or handed off in person at an election office. Drop boxes, common in so many states, were dubbed by the suit to be part of a problem of “unmonitored by-mail voting” and “the single greatest threat to free and fair elections.” So much for Moscow.

You don’t have to be a Never Trumper to see this as a blatant attempt to sabotage a mostly vote-by-mail election. Since the coronavirus outbreak, states have been rapidly making it easier to vote from home. California, Nevada, New Jersey, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, for instance, will be mailing ballots directly to every registered voter, for the first time in their respective histories. In 34 other states, any voter who wants an absentee ballot can request one. No excuse needed.

For years, though, drop boxes have been a key feature in universal vote-by-mail states such as Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, where nearly half of all voters use them—and where there have been zero instances of substantial voter fraud. “They’re very popular, particularly with people who may want to vote late and are undecided about one race or another,” former Oregon Secretary of State John Lindback told me. “They don’t want to risk their ballot not arriving on time. It’s equivalent to handing it off to election officials because the only people who can get in there and retrieve the ballots are election officials.”

Yet because of Republican efforts to curtail the use of drop boxes, government officials in some states have turned to loopholes and other clever legal maneuvers to keep these ballot receptacles open and available—and now, to expand their usage.

Consider the Trump administration lawsuit in Pennsylvania. In August, a federal judge dropped it, allowing a ruling to come from state courts. But the suit itself deterred some counties from ordering and distributing more drop boxes, according to one local election official there, for fear that the litigation costs would eat up funds at a time when revenues have collapsed because of COVID-19 and the economic downturn.

At least one Pennsylvania county, however, avoided the drop box controversy entirely. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, wasn’t named in the section on drop boxes in the Trump campaign lawsuit. Why? Because it simply staffed the site of the receptacle, effectively preempting the suit’s argument that there was no one there to monitor the delivery of ballots. It also located the receptacle in the lobby of the county’s Board of Elections building, where there was already a security camera in place, avoiding any additional costs. Voters could drop off their ballots at specific times of the day for roughly two weeks leading up to the election.

While it only had one drop box for the June primary, Allegheny County is considering setting up several others for the general election. Its Board of Elections will decide on September 16. If it does, it plans on applying the same principle elsewhere: staff the site by putting it in a governmental building, such as a library, Post Office, or fire station, where there are already government employees and security present. Not only does that answer the Republicans’ stated complaints, it avoids burdening the county with more administrative expenses.

This straightforward yet ingenious idea could be the loophole that elections administrators can use in a number of swing states, including Ohio and North Carolina, where Republican officials have mounted arbitrary and draconian efforts to limit drop boxes. This is crucial because drop boxes—already beloved by voters, especially in high-turnout states—will be even more important after Trump-led USPS changes that have dramatically slowed down the mail nationwide. Without drop boxes, the unambiguous Republican project to disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters this fall could ultimately be successful.

In Ohio, Republicans are putting up a formidable battle against drop boxes. GOP Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued a guidance in August allowing only one drop box per county. That meant that the county with the smallest population in the state would have the same number of drop boxes as the county with the largest population in the state.

Like Trump’s Pennsylvania lawsuit, LaRose’s order said that absentee ballots either had to be mailed back or returned directly to an elections office, which is where each county’s drop box would be located. On September 15, an Ohio judge blocked the order, ruling that it had no legal basis. LaRose has already stated that he will appeal.

“The workaround would be placing these additional drop boxes at already staffed municipal buildings or public institutions like a library or a city administrative building in a smaller city in the county,” Collin Marozzi, the ACLU of Ohio’s policy strategist, told me. “And if a drop box is videotaped, that counts as being monitored.”

North Carolina has even harsher restrictions on drop boxes, based on a 2019 statute: It doesn’t allow them, period. “The law requires that only a person or a near relative or legal guardian can possess or drop off a ballot for an individual,” the State Board of Elections’ spokesman Patrick Gannon, told me. “Drop boxes would not allow that law to be followed.”

But North Carolina could easily implement the same measures Allegheny County did to provide drop boxes statewide. All it has to do place them in preexisting government buildings, where it can either assign staff or deputize staff already present, like the front desk worker at a library. “It’s just getting creative and most of these states don’t see beyond the ways they’ve always done it and they think everything is impossible—and it’s really not,” said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute who used to run Denver’s elections. “It’s an all-of-government solution.”

Placing drop boxes inside of government buildings isn’t actually a novel idea. The method already has a record of success: It’s been used in vote-by-mail states for decades, such as Oregon, which typically grants voters a 12-hour period each day to hand off their ballots. A bipartisan team of election officers then collects them once or twice a day. Never in the last 30-plus years has the state had an episode of drop boxes being compromised by fraud or interference.

That’s because those ballots go through the same scrutiny as ballots that are sent in the mail; they are subject to verifying technology that matches the signature on the ballot to the one on the voter’s registration. It’s a process that has proven effective elsewhere, too. Rozan Mitchell, elections director of Utah County, just outside of Salt Lake City, told me that the only foul play they have discovered are parents who fill out their children’s ballots while they are away on Mormon missions. In other words, the system works at fending off fraud.

Most importantly, though, drop boxes are one of the most effective tools that can boost turnout, especially during a global pandemic when more Americans than ever before will be voting from home. Given the headlines about Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s hampering of the mail system, Americans have grown more anxious about sending their ballot back through the USPS.

Drop boxes, then, can be a reassuring harbor for voters skeptical about the Postal Service and unwilling to get in line at a polling place. The Trump administration, of course, will do its best to scare election officials away from deploying drop boxes, but Allegheny County shows that so long as they follow a reliable formula, they need not be afraid.

Eric Cortellessa

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