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'Chaos and confusion': The campaign to stamp out ballot drop boxes

'Chaos and confusion': The campaign to stamp out ballot drop boxes

Laws, court rulings & local decisions have targeted this method of voting in at least a dozen states as disinformation rages

  • A ballot drop box can be seen by the curb in front of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in Mesa. Drop boxes have long been popular and uncontroversial in Western states, such as Arizona, until the 2020 election.
    Alexia Faith/Cronkite NewsA ballot drop box can be seen by the curb in front of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court in Mesa. Drop boxes have long been popular and uncontroversial in Western states, such as Arizona, until the 2020 election.

In 2020, ballot drop boxes were a sturdy, metallic symbol of increased voter access amid a pandemic. Absentee and mail voting surged across the country, and voters used drop boxes to return 41% of those ballots.

Two years later, they’ve become a symbol of the attacks on voter access. After 2020, right-wing activists scrutinized security footage of drop boxes but failed to turn up evidence of widespread voter fraud. States across the country told the Associated Press there were no cases of fraud, vandalism or theft involving drop boxes that could have affected election outcomes.

But the campaigns against them are increasingly succeeding. Laws, court rulings and local and state politicians in at least a dozen states have targeted drop boxes in the last two years.

A Texas law banned them. New Hampshire eliminated them after its governor terminated an emergency order that allowed them during the pandemic. Wisconsin had more than 500 locations in 2020, but the state’s Supreme Court declared drop boxes illegal in July.

And local access is shrinking in other places:

  • Battles in Pennsylvania include elected officials in one county cutting the number of drop boxes from six to one — and then to zero.
  • A Florida law prompted counties to axe locations and limit hours. In Palm Beach County, about 190,000 voters lived at least half a mile farther from a drop box in the 2022 primary, compared to 2020.
  • Populous places in Georgia reduced drop boxes to comply with a new state law, including one county with 80% fewer locations than it had in 2020.

Further restrictions appear likely. Bills to ban drop boxes in Idaho, Arizona and Pennsylvania passed in one chamber of the legislature this year before falling short. With hundreds of GOP candidates on the November ballot who question the 2020 election results, bans could become law in 2023 and beyond.

“There’s definitely a national push,” said Georgia state Rep. Rhonda Burnough. Clayton County, in her district, offered seven drop boxes in 2020 but was restricted to three in 2022. Neighboring Fulton County dropped from 37 drop boxes to seven.

“Everybody benefited from drop boxes, regardless of age or occupation. It was just one of those things that was very, very convenient,” Burnough said.

In many areas, the curtailments will hit voters of color hard. Due to Georgia’s restrictive state law, the number of drop boxes across the diverse, vote-rich Atlanta area has dwindled. Clayton County, where Burnough lives, is 69% Black and 14% Hispanic.

In Florida, "restrictions on drop boxes will fall disproportionately on Black voters, voters affiliated with the Democratic Party, and younger voters," Michael Herron, a Dartmouth College academic analyzing the impact of the state’s 2021 law, found. Advocates, officials and academics also stress the changes will burden working-class voters and people who work nights or irregular schedules.

The campaign against drop boxes is part of the broader push to make voting more difficult after the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn and cast doubt on the results.

“So much of what has been standard operating procedure for election administration has been weaponized and has come under attack. And it's a wide spectrum of functions, including ballot drop boxes,” said Tammy Patrick of Democracy Fund. She said states that have cut drop box locations without making it easy to vote by mail “are setting up voters to fail, rather than allowing the system to serve them.”

While drop boxes became a more common sight in 2020, they have long been popular and uncontroversial in Western states such as Washington, Utah, Oregon and Arizona. That has changed since Trump’s loss, with right-wing activist groups pledging to surveil ballot drop boxes in Washington and Arizona this year.

This election, voters have reported they have been intimidated by vigilantes staking out drop boxes near Phoenix.

Obstacles and barriers in Florida

In April 2022, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis declared in a press release that Florida had “stopped drop boxes.”

It was a misleading claim. They had been rebranded in state law as “secure ballot intake stations.''

Local election officials had to scramble to update references on ballot sleeves, literature for voters and flutter flags. “We had to change all of those,” said Wendy Sartory Link, the election supervisor in Palm Beach County. “So, there was an expense and time commitment there.”

But that wasn’t the only change. A 2021 law targeted drop box access following an election in which 1.5 million Floridians used one.

Now, they can be placed only in early voting sites and in elections offices, reducing location options. All drop boxes must be monitored in person by employees of the local elections office, making round-the-clock access impractical for many Florida counties. Election officials who break the rules are subject to a $25,000 fine under the new law.

University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith reviewed information from counties and estimated that one-fourth of Florida’s ballot drop boxes would be eliminated or limited due to the law. Boxes at early voting sites can be used only during early voting hours, for instance.

“It's like having an ATM outside of a bank that is only open during banking hours. What’s the point? Except … to restrict the ability of people to use them,” Smith said. 

Smith reviewed data from Florida’s Manatee County in 2020 and found that Black voters, Hispanic voters and voters with disabilities were more likely than White voters to drop off their ballots at the 24/7 locations after hours.

Previously, many election offices had used video surveillance to safeguard drop boxes, a common practice in other states. In Palm Beach, four locations were monitored by video round the clock and attended to by law enforcement. Now, elections employees, and only elections employees, must monitor the boxes.

The hours of availability for drop boxes in Palm Beach County dropped nearly 30%, compared with the 2020 general election. Link, the election supervisor, said the new law is the reason.

The loss of a site at a community center in Polk County meant more than 40,000 voters lived farther from a ballot drop box in this year’s primary, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Half of them will have to travel at least eight additional miles.

Experts say ballot drop boxes with round-the-clock video monitoring are secure and reducing their availability hurts voters.

“The nurse that gets off at 12 o'clock midnight and has a ballot, she could just drop it off at one of the sites,” said LaVon Bracy of Faith in Florida, a longtime voting rights advocate in the state.

Bracy — who was the first Black student to graduate from Gainesville High School in 1965 — sees echoes of past voter suppression efforts in the new law.

“It is Voter Suppression 101,” she said. “It is done purposefully, and particularly, it will affect people of color.”

Requiring access while also limiting it

The sweeping election law Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed last year mandated that every county offer a drop box for the first time in the state’s 234-year history.

It also sparked an outcry from major Georgia corporations, voting rights advocates and Major League Baseball, which pulled the 2021 All-Star Game out of the state in protest.

The law's provision that makes it illegal to provide food or water to voters in line also drew widespread condemnation. But so did another change, which slashed the number of drop boxes in populous areas. Counties are now limited to just one drop box per 100,000 voters, or one box per early voting site — whichever is less. The law also moves drop boxes inside election offices and early voting sites so they’re no longer accessible round-the-clock.

“We have 11 advance in-person voting sites, currently, and only six of them can have a drop box under the law because of the population requirement,” said Zach Manifold, Gwinnett County’s elections supervisor. The county had 23 drop boxes two years ago.

The law means that Taliaferro County, population 1,596, will have a per-capita rate of drop boxes that is 100 times higher than Gwinnett County’s.

The Atlanta area, which includes Gwinnett County, was particularly affected by the drop box provision. Advocates believe it was targeted. 

“They took a look at how minority communities of voters participated in the election, and they made those processes much more difficult,” said Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

The law quickly drew legal challenges — including one from the U.S. Department of Justice that called provisions of the law “racially discriminatory.” In a legal filing disputing that claim, attorneys for the state argued that drop box availability has been expanded, since one is now required in each county.

That ignores the situation in Atlanta. According to an NPR analysis, over half of the 550,000 Georgia voters who used drop boxes in 2020 lived in four Atlanta-area counties. Roughly half of voters in those counties are people of color. And those counties saw the number of drop boxes decline precipitously after the law took effect — from 107 to 25.

‘Extremely negative opinions about drop boxes’

In cities across Wisconsin, ballot drop boxes haven’t been restricted; they have been eliminated.

The state’s Supreme Court ruled in July that Wisconsin election law does not permit drop boxes. The ruling didn’t mince words: Ballot drop boxes had been used for years in parts of Wisconsin, and “thousands of votes have been cast via this unlawful method, thereby directly harming the Wisconsin voters. The illegality of these drop boxes weakens the people’s faith that the election produced an outcome reflective of their will,” wrote Justice Rebecca Bradley, part of the court’s conservative majority.

The ruling came as a blow to local officials such as Celestine Jeffreys, Green Bay’s city clerk. In 2020, she helped map out six drop boxes across the city. The metal boxes, black with a blue stripe around the middle, were set up in a park, at city hall and near busy commercial areas. They received hundreds of ballots each day in the run-up to the election.

Those boxes are gone now. They’re stored in a garage on the city’s west side, and it’s unclear if they will ever be used in elections again — even though the city uses drop boxes for other business, like dropping off payments for parking ticket fines.

“My goal is to make voting calm, safe, secure, welcoming and predictable,” Jeffreys said. “And, you know, predictability and changing the rules all the time don't go together.”

The intense scrutiny of Wisconsin elections and the outcome in 2020 has made her job challenging. “There were some of our neighbors who really had extremely negative opinions about drop boxes,” Jeffreys said.

Ron Heuer is one of them. Heuer lives in Kewaunee County, just east of Green Bay, and his concerns about drop boxes run so deep, he put up billboards about them.

“2020 Green Bay Election,” says one south of the city, followed by two questions in all caps: “ILLEGAL DROP BOXES? ELECTION BRIBERY?”

“The purpose of the billboard was to keep that message in front of the general public,” said Heuer, whose Wisconsin Voter Alliance brought an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn Wisconsin’s election results in 2020. He formed the group in 2020 after learning about grants that the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life provided to local election officials during the pandemic.

Wisconsin’s five most populous cities, including Green Bay and Milwaukee, requested grant money to set up drop boxes in 2020.

“The Zuckerberg money came in deploying these things,” said Heuer, referring to a $350 million donation Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan made to the Center for Tech and Civic Life. “In these areas that were Black and brown communities, in these big cities. And they shut out everybody else. That wasn't right.”

State data shows jurisdictions across Wisconsin, including Lake Nebagamon, with a population of 835 that is 98% White, offered ballot drop boxes in 2020. A map published by APM Reports shows that the Center for Tech and Civic Life awarded grants to both large and small jurisdictions.

After the 2020 election, some Republican legislators worked to establish a framework for drop boxes in Wisconsin. A statement by Trump in early 2022 blew up the effort.

“Some RINO Republicans in Wisconsin are working hand in hand with others to have drop boxes again placed in Wisconsin,” Trump said. “These fools are playing right into the Democrats’ hand. Drop boxes are only good for Democrats and cheating, not good for Republicans.”

The statement effectively killed support for the provision in the statehouse. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling came six months later.

“We've had so much litigation in Wisconsin since 2020,” said Barbara Beckert of Disability Rights Wisconsin. She said this year alone has been “chaos and confusion,” with the ruling in the drop box case also calling into question the right of voters with disabilities to have someone else return their ballot for them. (A federal court affirmed that right in August.)

For voters, Beckert said, “a drop box was a great thing — it was just one additional option to make voting more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.” The drop boxes were also convenient for people who provide care to those with disabilities, she added, and more secure than U.S. Postal Service mailboxes.

Most voters are likely unaware of the security measures election officials take around drop boxes, which typically include video or in-person surveillance, detailed chain of custody procedures for election workers handling ballots, and the security of the box itself.

Larry Olson’s company Laserfab has manufactured ballot drop boxes for over a decade. The Puyallup, Washington-based manufacturer currently has about 900 drop boxes in the field, he said, many ordered during the 2020 election cycle.

The wave of misinformation and harassment of election officials following 2020 caught him by surprise.

“Our box is just a box. It obviously doesn't have feelings,” Olson said. But he wishes people suspicious of them knew more about their design. Laserfab’s boxes are built so that water won’t drip on ballots, with tamper-proof hinges, and with ballot collection doors that automatically lock. “Literally every design feature came back to the integrity of the box and the ballots,” Olson said.

The boxes are sturdy and have withstood cars and buses running into them. Even the paint the company uses is designed so that white envelopes will show up clearly against it, to help election workers picking up ballots. Olson said that he’s puzzled by the controversies surrounding drop boxes. He’s used one to vote for a decade.

Fighting over drop boxes at the local level

In areas where state laws and court rulings haven’t targeted drop boxes, they’ve become a flash point locally.

Some local jurisdictions have resisted efforts to remove drop boxes. 

In early October, interim Secretary of State Karl Allred sent a letter to Wyoming’s 23 county clerks. “There is concern over the use of absentee ballot drop boxes,” Allred wrote. “I’m mindful of the fact that there have been no issues reported with the use of drop boxes in Wyoming, but that does not alleviate the potential for abuse or destruction of ballots through use of fire or other means.”

Albany County’s clerk, Jackie Gonzales, responded to Allred six days later. “Thank you for stating that you do not wish to interrupt or cause confusion to the voting process that is already in progress,” she wrote. “At this time, having to remove our absentee ballot drop box for the 2022 General Election would do both.” She added that the drop box is under constant surveillance and that a bipartisan team retrieves ballots daily and diligently logs them.

Other local officials have moved in the other direction.

In Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, county commissioners set up six drop boxes for voters in the 2020 election after several requests for them, including a petition signed by more than 1,000 people.

This year, commissioners decided that access was no longer worth paying for. For the 2022 primary, commissioners voted to eliminate five of the six drop boxes.

And in September, the commission’s Republican majority refused to consider a plan to offer one during this year’s general election. That meant that the county would no longer have a single drop box.

Westmoreland County Commission chair Sean Kertes did not respond to several requests for an interview. In public statements, Kertes, a Republican, objected to the cost.

Commissioner Gina Cerilli Thrasher, the lone Democrat on the commission, criticized the change. “This is a huge issue for senior citizens and those disabled that may receive their ballot late in the mail,” she told Public Integrity.

She disputed the idea that cost was behind the removal of drop boxes, pointing to a $1.2 million grant the county received from the state to assist with election costs.

“This has zero to do with finances and everything to do with a national political push from the far right,” she said.

Drop boxes are a target in other parts of Pennsylvania, a swing state Trump won in 2016 and lost in 2020.

America First Legal, a group headed by former Trump advisor Stephen Miller, filed suit in two other Pennsylvania counties, seeking to require 24/7 staffing of ballot drop boxes. In Lehigh County, a judge sided with the county, while Chester County agreed to add additional security measures.

Luzerne County’s council narrowly defeated a measure to bar the county from paying for drop boxes. Fulton County eliminated availability except on Election Day. And the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill that would have banned them throughout the state.

“Drop boxes were never approved by the General Assembly in the first place,” state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement.

The measure failed to advance in the House of Representatives. Mastriano is the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, and in his platform, he pledges to “get rid of drop boxes.”

The attacks on this method of voting don’t sit right with Greg Guzik. The 75-year-old retired Vietnam veteran is a Westmoreland County booster, calling it “the best place in the nation.” He lives in Ligonier, at the foot of the Laurel Highlands.

He was among those submitting public comments to the county commission in October 2020, calling for additional drop boxes. He tried to use what was then the county’s only location but arrived with his ballot before it had been set up.

Guzik was not pleased about the county commission’s changes in 2022 and didn’t buy the explanation that cost was the driver. “I’m appalled, to tell you the truth,” he said.

Misinformation about the 2020 election is rampant in the area, Guzik said. That suspicion over elections didn’t exist when he was growing up in nearby Bradenville, but over the last two years “it seeped into every crack and town and small burg in these Southwestern PA counties.”

He’s watched with dismay the restrictions in the nation’s voting access. Guzik describes himself as “all about flag waving” and says he believes the government should make it easy for Americans to cast their ballots. “To have that taken away? We’re moving backwards as a country.”

Center for Public Integrity journalist Ileana Garnand also contributed to this story.

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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