Newest Front on the Vote-By-Mail Legal Fight: Drop Boxes

By Richard Dahl on August 19, 2020

Consider the modest drop box.

In the not-too-distant past, we were more likely to take drop boxes for granted in our lives. We paid regular visits to Blockbuster to drop off the movie videos we'd rented for the weekend. We made more trips to library book-return boxes in those days before we had access to e-books.

We also dropped far fewer letters and documents into U.S. Postal Service collection boxes. This trend, of course, has been going on for years and has prompted the USPS to reduce the number of these collection points as a result.

Although many of us have been generally aware that there are fewer mailboxes now, the decline didn't become a political flashpoint until recently.

The Vote-by-Mail Controversy

With the spread of the coronavirus, there's been a broad move to expand vote-by-mail options so that people don't have to risk their health by voting in traditional polling sites. 

President Trump, however, is a vehement opponent of voting by mail because he believes that it favors Democrats and hurts Republicans. In June, he appointed one of his strongest supporters and fundraisers, Louis DeJoy, to be the new postmaster general. So the following month when DeJoy announced a series of cost-cutting measures including the continued removal of mailboxes, resulting in slower delivery times, the timing seemed ominous.

Many states had already instituted liberalized vote-by-mail procedures for primary elections, and some experienced difficulties connected to the handling of the mail itself. In Wisconsin, for instance, thousands of people who requested ballots by the deadline never received them and thousands of mailed ballots were postmarked too late to count.

This might be enough to prompt clear-thinking people to consider ways to improve vote-by-mail and see a much greater role for drop boxes – in this case, ballot drop boxes. But that was before the even greater urgency that arose on Aug. 14. That's when the news broke that the Postal Service had notified 46 states that it couldn't guarantee that all mailed votes cast for the Nov. 3 general election would arrive in time to be counted.

The result has been a furor, fueled in large part by suspicions that the cost-cutting moves (such as more collection-box removals) by DeJoy are part of a nefarious plan by his friend President Donald Trump to further gum up mail voting.

The outcry was sufficiently strong to prompt the USPS to pledge that it would halt its planned mailbox removals until after the election. Still, while Trump lacks the unilateral power to defund the USPS, he has made it clear that he will pursue every avenue to kneecap mail voting.

The Argument for Drop Boxes

So, there is strong motivation for supporters of vote-by-mail to do all they can to get all mailed ballots properly counted in November.

Therefore, the modest drop box is looming large in many people's thinking.

The recent USPS letter to the states recommended that no matter what the states' rules are, they should inform voters to get their ballots in the mail by Oct. 27, one week prior to the election.

But what if even that isn't enough? Why not do everything to eliminate reliance on the Postal Service to get ballots to the election offices on time?

Why not install lots of drop boxes?

After all, that's what the states that have instituted universal mail balloting have done. Colorado, which switched to universal vote-by-mail in 2013, has made heavy use of drop boxes since the beginning and has found no problems. Colorado law, incidentally, requires that the boxes be kept under 24-hour video surveillance in adequate lighting and that they be emptied at least every 24 hours by election judges.

By early August, most states where vote-by-mail is allowed (34 of them plus the District of Columbia) had begun installing drop boxes. Many of them are located next to polling sites, while others are placed to maximize access to voters.

There are companies that specialize in the manufacture of drop boxes, and they claim they are secure. Election officials say these sites will be closely monitored.

But the opponents of vote-by-mail – and, by extension, drop boxes – differ. In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have filed suit to halt use of drop boxes on the grounds that the state hadn't properly monitored the boxes to make sure they are not vulnerable to fraud.

On Aug. 12, Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, announced that he would not allow any county to offer more than one drop box. With about 6 million eligible voters in Ohio's 88 counties, that comes out to one drop box for every 68,000 people, far more than the 15,000 to 20,000 recommend by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

In Tennessee, Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett said his state doesn't allow drop boxes for ballots due to concerns that people won't necessarily be submitting their own ballots as they would in a polling place. People could offer to pick up ballots for voters and simply dispose of them, he suggested.

Congress Seeks Answers

Drop boxes, of course, are just one piece in the larger response to how the country intends to operate a fair election while keeping everyone safe during a pandemic. Much will depend on having the Postal Service operating at peak efficiency throughout the election season. To that end, the House Oversight Committee has scheduled a hearing for Aug. 24 and has invited DeJoy and USPS Board of Governors Chairman Robert M. Duncan to testify.

Meanwhile, Trump was back on the warpath on the morning of Aug. 17, this time focusing his ire directly at drop boxes.

“Some states use 'drop boxes' for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots," he tweeted. “So who is going to 'collect' the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation? A Rigged Election? So bad for our Country. Only Absentee Ballots acceptable!"

The answer to Trump's question: The ballots are collected by the same election officials who collect ballots at polling places.

Chances are, that won't mollify him. And chances are, we're going to hear a lot more about vote-by-mail, the U.S. Postal Service, and, yes, the modest drop box from now until Nov. 3 and beyond.

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