Election 2020: Counties consider more election ballot drop boxes; await AG opinion

A voter uses the drop box at the Montgomery County Board of Elections on Third Street in Dayton. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF
A voter uses the drop box at the Montgomery County Board of Elections on Third Street in Dayton. MARSHALL GORBY / STAFF

County elections boards are awaiting an opinion from the state’s attorney general about whether more ballot drop boxes can be installed across counties, an idea pushed by Democrats to guard against postal service delays and prevent Election Day backups during a pandemic.

“It’s safer, it’s more convenient and it doesn’t take four days for the ballot to go from here to the board of elections,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who is promoting more drop off locations.

“There’s nothing to stop it here in Ohio except status-quo thinking,” he said.

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The state’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, is lukewarm on the idea, but has asked for a formal opinion from the attorney general.

“The problem with this is that the Ohio revised code is very gray on this. The legislature has spoken on this previously, but it was only as a temporary measure and when the legislature spoke on it, they said one per county,” LaRose said. “What I don’t want to do is jeopardize dozens of counties around the state potentially adding extra boxes and then ending up in a protracted lawsuit as a result of it, which would be expensive and distracting, right as we’re leading up to Election Day.”

Pepper remains unconvinced there’s anything gray about the law.

“There is nothing in Ohio statute that bars boards of elections from putting drop boxes way beyond just one per county,” he said in an online video standing next to Hamilton County’s single drop box.

As of Thursday, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, had not rendered an opinion, according to the office.

“If he says that we can and that it’s legal to do that, then I’d be happy to have the county bipartisan board of elections make that decision about whether that’s best for their county, or not, to add additional drop boxes,” LaRose said.

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Backers of more drop boxes say they are running out of time while the virus runs its course.

“It just seems like with the pandemic, and people concerned — and rightfully so — about standing in long lines with people, it just seems like an easy fix,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman, a Democrat.

Lieberman said voters would benefit with four to six more boxes placed around the county, with public libraries being the most likely locations.

“For people throughout the county — and we have a big county — that don’t want to drive downtown, we’re very hopeful that we can get some of these boxes throughout the county,” Lieberman said.

While Montgomery County and others have had a secure board of elections drop box for past elections, counties were not required to have one until the coronavirus pandemic forced changes to the chaotic primary election scheduled in March and completed April 28. Emergency legislation required an outside drop box at each of Ohio’s 88 county elections boards.

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LaRose has asked Yost whether counties can continue to use the single box required for the last primary in this November’s general election and beyond, and if so, are counties permitted to add more drop boxes.

LaRose said a better solution is one he’s asked the General Assembly to approve: paid postage for all mail-in ballots.

“If we had postage-paid envelopes, then every blue U.S.P.S. box in the state becomes a secure drop box,” he said. “And we don’t need the boards of elections to spend thousands of dollars going around the state installing more drop boxes.”

LaRose said many states offer paid postage for mail-in ballots and Ohio could do so using available federal funds.

Lieberman said some voters experienced a slowdown in the mail during the last primary election, some don’t want to pay postage, while others simply don’t trust the mail anymore.

“Whether it’s true or not, we’re hearing again that mail could be slowed down,” she said. “It’s one more option, whether people absentee vote, vote early or do the drop box or the traditional route of going to the polls.

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Both Pepper, and Lieberman, who he enlisted in the effort, said the issue should be nonpartisan and that multiple county drop off locations are found in other states, both those governed by Republicans and Democrats.

Steve Harsman, Montgomery County Board of Elections deputy director, said the office will be rolling out a campaign soon in an effort to get half — or more — of voters to cast ballots early in the election predicted to get the largest election turnout in history.

More drop boxes in the county could help relieve the pressure on voting day, he said.

“With six-feet social distancing guidelines and requirements. We’re going to have less space to put people inside if there’s weather concerns,” he said. “We want to be very proactive to avoid those long lines.”

If Yost issues a ruling favorable to drop box proponents, local boards of election would have to approve the expenditures, make the purchases and have them installed. Montgomery County can use CARES Act money to add boxes, Harsman said.

The current drop box outside the Montgomery County Administration Building cost about $700, not including installation, but it’s unclear what additional security costs may be required if counties are eventually permitted to add other remote drop boxes, he said.

Elections officials in Montgomery County and elsewhere are waiting for Yost’s opinion.

“We’re in limbo,” Harsman said. “Timing is going to be very concerning depending on when that ruling is issued.”

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