On the East Side of Youngstown, Ohio, a steady stream of early voters drop off completed absentee ballots into the new drop box outside the Mahoning county board of elections.
Gloria Phifer is one of them. The 68-year-old retired mail carrier drove about 15 minutes to the former hospital-turned-county office center. She doesn’t mind walking, so she found a parking spot outside, walked up to the entrance and dropped her ballot into the red drop box – the only one in the county.
“My fellow mail carriers, God bless them and everything, but I thought it would easier just to bring it down here,” Phifer said. “This is an important election and I wanted to just make sure [there were] no problems.”
In response to safety concerns spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and worries about potential mail delays, drop boxes are popping up all over the country – in many places for the first time. The largely secure voting method has long been available to voters in states like Colorado and Washington. But amid the partisan battles over access to the polls, election officials in battleground states are still fighting to limit their usage with only days left until 3 November.
Directives from Ohio secretary of state, Frank LaRose, and Texas governor, Greg Abbott – both Republicans – limit drop boxes to one per county. In Harris county, Texas, home to Houston, that’s one box for 4.7 million people. For the 228,000 residents in more sparse Mahoning county, a single drop box could result in a lengthy trip to the board of elections. In stark contrast, for the 2.3 million residents of King county in greater Seattle, there are 73 24-hour drop boxes within easy reach of voters.
The ongoing litigation limiting the number of drop boxes has created confusion for voters in the middle of an election in which 46 million people have already voted by mail. But in many cases, officials are also seeing that voters’ increased anxiety about the safety of their ballots is matched by their determination.
“When they see it’s so much harder for them to cast their ballot, they react to that by saying, ‘I’ll show you,’” said the Harris county clerk, Chris Hollins.
In July, the Travis county clerk, Dana DeBeauvoir, planned to establish three locations for Austin, Texas, for voters to hand-deliver their completed absentee ballots. The sprawling city is home to nearly 1 million people, and is one of the most diverse and Democratic-leaning areas in the mostly Republican state.
But on 1 October, Governor Abbott issued his executive order limiting the number of drop-off locations, citing enhanced election security and stymying DeBeauvoir’s plans and others. In nearby Harris county, officials were preparing 11 drop-off sites locations.
“We got no prior notice,” said DeBeauvoir. “We were completely surprised by an abrupt order by the governor to cancel the three areas that we had planned and advertised for hand-delivery downtown.”
Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, issued a similar directive on 12 August. He said multiple boxes would invite lawsuits, further complicating an already confusing election year. State law requires voters to mail or deliver completed absentee ballots “to the director”. LaRose interprets the law to prohibit drop boxes in places other than county election boards.
The deputy director of the Mahoning county board of elections, Tom McCabe, described the limit as “the way it should be”. “That’s what the law allows,” he said. “That’s what the secretary of state interprets, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Drop boxes are a new added convenience, and just one of the many methods of voting available this year, he said. But critics argue the directives amount to voter suppression, and in both states, voting rights activists sued to block the orders.
A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a Travis county state district court order permitting multiple hand delivery locations, but the decision will not yet lead to the reopening of closed drop boxes in Travis and Harris counties. On the same day, Ohio voting rights advocates dropped their suit when it became clear the issue wouldn’t be decided before election day.
On 10 October, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit by the Trump campaign that tried to bar the use of drop boxes in Pennsylvania, stating the campaign did not provide tangible evidence of fraud. The Trump campaign plans to appeal against the decision.
Drop boxes and drive-thrus
To drop off an absentee ballot in the box at the Mahoning county board of elections, “you don’t even have to get out of your car”, McCabe said. The red mailbox is located outside the entrance to the building, in the middle of a roundabout. Voters can drive right up to the box.
Pat Morningstar, who lives in nearby Austintown, drove to the board of elections on 19 October to drop off a bundle of ballots – for her and her husband, two daughters and two grandchildren. The Ohio secretary of state stipulates voters can submit ballots of “near relatives”.
“I got everybody’s,” she said, “I told them all, ‘Do them over the weekend, I’m taking them down Monday morning.’ I just did that, so, we voted!”
The process of submitting a completed absentee ballot is not as simple in other states. In Pennsylvania, election workers will not permit voters to drop off ballots other than their own. In Texas, even calling the delivery system a “drop box” is misleading. Voters must deliver their completed absentee ballots in person to a drop-off location and show approved identification to a poll worker; voters can’t submit anyone else’s ballot.
To streamline the process, the Travis county clerk’s office created 16 bays in the parking lot for voters to drive in, pull into a bay, and then go through the hand-delivery process from their cars. “It’s kinda like Sonic,” DeBeauvoir said, referencing the drive-in restaurant.
With only about three weeks until election day, Florida election officials tried to create new security requirements for the state’s drop boxes. In 16 October letter, the office of the Florida secretary of state, Laurel Lee, announced drop boxes must be staffed at all times they are in use by an election employee or a sworn law enforcement official. The last-minute announcement presented an obstacle to counties using surveillance cameras to protect drop boxes.
Florida law simply requires that drop boxes be “secure” but does not define the word “secure”, said Ronald Lubasky, an attorney representing local election officials. Election supervisors, therefore, have the discretion to determine the meaning, he argues.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Thelma Smith, a 75-year-old resident of Harris county, drove her 79-year-old husband to submit his ballot at the county’s only drop-off site, NRG Stadium in Houston. Smith’s husband is disabled and was unable to join her when she voted early in person.
Smith called Abbott’s order “unbelievable”. “To me, it’s voter suppression,” she said. “Almost 5 million people and one drop-off? Oh my goodness. I can’t believe he did that.”
In Ohio, Erin Calaway drove her friend Anna Schnayder to the Trumbull county board of elections so they could both drop off their absentee ballots. The box is located in front of the building; voters must park in the limited lot and walk to the entrance. Schnayder is disabled and unable to drive.
Regarding the single box, Calaway said, “I prefer security over quantity,” though she added, “it’d be nice to have increased access, especially for people with disabilities.”
As election day approaches, local officials are spending more and more time answering calls from frantic voters anxious about mail delays, getting the correct ballots and the security of their votes.
In Trumbull county, Massullo said he reassures voters over the phone, but the best comfort he can provide is getting correct ballots to voters on time.
When voter Bill Dray drove to the board of elections, he didn’t even feel comfortable putting his ballot in the box – he wanted to hand-deliver it to an election official inside. Dray’s concern about the safety of his ballot isn’t completely unfounded – recently a man set fire to a drop box outside the Boston Public Library – though tampering with mail-in votes is very rare.
But Massullo was standing outside when Dray arrived and assured him his ballot would be safe in the box.
Setting aside partisan brawls and the resulting voter anxiety, it’s the responsibility of election officials to make sure votes are counted, said Chris Hollins, the county clerk in Harris county, Texas.
“It’s my job to protect the right to vote for every voter in Harris county,” he said. “I don’t care who you’re going to vote for, what color you are, or what language you speak. Every single voter has that constitutional right. It should not be a partisan issue. It’s mind blowing to me that folks are still on the other side of the argument – trying to pick and choose who is allowed to vote.”
“It’s frustrating that those who claim to be leaders in a democracy are fighting democracy.”
Erum Salam, Ally Villareal and Nick Fiorellini contributed to the reporting