Drop boxes were a critical tool for elections in the pandemic. Why are some states limiting them?

·9 min read

Carole Hulme voted for years by dropping her ballot in the mail, a convenience she abandoned when she said her mail service slowed significantly.

Now, she still uses a metal box to cast her ballot, just not the blue one from the U.S. Postal Service.

As Ohio wrapped up its May primary election, Hulme drove to the tent parked in front of the Franklin County Board of Elections to deposit her vote in a ballot drop box.

Voting drop boxes have been around for years in some states, and they became a critical tool for election administrators during the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters who don't want to vote in person on election day in some states instead can vote by mail, either through the U.S. Postal Service or by delivering their ballots to an election drop box.

Voting rights in the USA: Inside a pivotal year for changes to American elections

Election Day voting had been declining for years, but it cratered during the pandemic as more Americans used mail-in ballots for the 2020 election. Research from the MIT Election Data and Science Lab found an increasing share of the electorate returned vote-by-mail ballots using drop boxes.

A wave of new election laws in some states, though, has put limits on drop boxes. From Florida to Wisconsin and Iowa to Pennsylvania, they have been at the center of fights in courtrooms and on the floors of state legislatures.

Voting laws: New election laws could create barriers for voters with disabilities

Those restrictions have been fueled by the baseless conspiracy theory pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies that drop boxes were used as a tool to steal the 2020 presidential election. A conservative filmmaker's movie injected new life into those claims earlier this month, but its conclusions have been discredited by independent fact-checkers.

None of the lawsuits Trump and his allies used to challenge the 2020 election uncovered widespread fraud, but some states still have moved to limit drop boxes.

“We are witnessing in the wake of the 2020 election a growing divide around the country between states that are expanding access and those that are restricting it,” said Liz Avore, vice president for law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab.

States limiting drop boxes

Before 2021, only 13 states had laws governing drop boxes on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but more states probably used the boxes even without an explicit law.

Laws were on the books before 2021 in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

Several of those states expanded voting by mail years ago and already had robust shares of voters returning the ballots in drop boxes. In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, more than half of voters who used vote-by-mail ballots returned them in drop boxes in the 2016 election, according to an MIT Election Data and Science Lab analysis of voter surveys. That jumped to about 60% in 2020.

Election threats: Election workers faced new threats after 2020 election. Experts fear it will drive them away

The jump in all other states was even more dramatic. The share of mail ballots returned in drop boxes in those other states increased from 4% in 2016 to nearly 20% in 2020, the researchers found.

Some states have passed rules allowing for or expanding the use of drop boxes since then.

The laws limiting drop boxes have been approved mostly in Republican-controlled states.

“We did not see these types of attacks on drop boxes prior to the 2020 election," Avore said. "Drop boxes have been around for a while now."

Georgia's drop-box law faces midterm elections test

Georgia's new voting law, adopted after the 2020 election, limits the location and hours of drop boxes and caps the number of drop boxes based on the population of a county. That means fewer drop boxes in highly populated metropolitan areas such as Atlanta. In that three-county region, the share of absentee voters returning ballots in drop boxes slid from about 60% in 2020 to about a third in 2021, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The change in Georgia gets its first big test in the the state's 2022 primary on May 24. Voter turnout is always lower in off-year elections, but far more voters are expected to cast ballots in hotly contested primaries for governor, senator and secretary of state this time.

The 2018 Georgia primary drew more than 1 million votes. Already, though, the 270,000 ballots cast in the early voting period for Georgia's 2022 primary are more than triple the 80,000 votes cast at the same point in 2018, according to Secretary of State Brad Raffesnperger.

Voting: For some Native Americans, casting a ballot means an 'absurd' trip to the polling site

Austin Jackson of Athens, Georgia, said he used the drop box in 2020 to avoid getting sick, but he opted to vote early in person in 2022 to avoid dealing with a ballot request form.

“I just don't want to go through that this year," said Jackson, 39. "But it was worth it for avoiding a deadly virus.”

Virginia Kase Solomón, chief executive of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said she will be monitoring how changes to election laws, including limits on drop boxes, affect turnout in the primaries.

“The primaries give us a peek into what could happen in the fall," she said during a National Task Force on Election Crises call with reporters this month.

New limits on drop boxes in Iowa, Florida

Other states also have adopted or considered drop-box limits.

“You have states that don’t have laws that are set up to help the voters succeed," said Tammy Patrick, a former Maricopa County, Arizona, election official who now is senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund, a nonprofit that aims to improve the democratic process. "They have laws set up that almost require them to fail.”

An Iowa law enacted last year allows drop boxes but limits them to one per county and limits third parties who can return ballots for voters to immediate family members, household members and caretakers.

Florida initially considered banning drop boxes altogether before settling on new restrictions for who can drop off ballots and requirements for supervising drop boxes. A federal judge struck down that law, but it was reinstated pending appeal.

During debate last year, the bill's sponsor, Florida Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, said that he was not aware of any problems with drop boxes but that the state should not "sit on our laurels."

In Pennsylvania, the GOP-controlled state Senate voted in April to ban drop boxes, though Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said he opposes the bill.

A wide-ranging elections bill in the Ohio House of Representatives would limit boards of elections to using drop boxes outside their offices only in the 10 days before an election and confine them to the board's property.

Wisconsin's Supreme Court is weighing whether state voters will be allowed to use drop boxes in the partisan primary and general elections later this year after letting stand a lower court's ban during its nonpartisan election in April. Wisconsin doesn't have a law explicitly allowing or banning drop boxes, but the state's election officials has allowed them.

Voter equity: Voting rights activists are pushing to speak the language of all voters. It's not always English.

The court's decision could be crucial in a state where the presidential election was decided on a thin margin, said Jay Heck, state coordinator for the good-government group Common Cause Wisconsin.

President Joe Biden beat Trump in Wisconsin by about 20,700 votes in the 2020 election. In 2018, the state's gubernatorial race was decided by fewer than 30,000 votes.

"The difference of a couple of thousand votes that aren't counted, absentee ballots that aren't counted because the court decided that drop boxes can only be in one place in Milwaukee and can't be all over the city or, or in Madison or in Green Bay, that can have an effect on the outcome of the election," Heck said.

What's driving limits on drop boxes?

Patrick, of the Democracy Fund, said the limits on drop boxes have been fueled by false claims about the 2020 election.

MIT's Election Data and Science Lab found in its analysis that more Republican survey respondents said they had typically voted by mail before the 2020 election, but a bigger share of Democratic voters said they were likely to continue to use mail-in ballots.

Some polls have shown that significant chunks of Republican voters believe Biden was not legitimately elected, citing voter fraud.

"They’re going to use that narrative to drive all sorts of policies that are not voter-centric, that in fact limit voter access," Patrick said. "There is this false misconception that it’s only going to harm voters of the other party.”

Lori Augino, executive director of the nonprofit National Vote At Home Institute, said drop boxes have built-in security features that make them difficult to tamper with: They are made of steel and often anchored to the ground.

The same checks and balances used for other forms of voting, such as barcodes and having multiple election officials retrieve ballots, also apply to ballots cast in drop boxes, she said.

“Voters love them. They are convenient. They are secure," said Aguino, a former Washington state elections director.

Redistricting: Voters get fewer choices as Democrats and Republicans dig partisan trenches in redistricting

They also are just one part of the vote-by-mail system, she said, and whether voters choose to use them can largely depend on other policies, such as whether prepaid postage is provided for returning ballots.

Election calendars in some states also make drop boxes more important, said Paul Gronke, a professor at Reed College and director of the Elections and Voting Information Center. In some cases, ballot requests are allowed too close to Election Day for a voter to receive the ballot and then return it via the U.S. Postal Service, he said.

Ballot drop boxes were "utterly noncontroversial" before the 2020 election, he said.

Trump's attacks on drop boxes, though, sparked a backlash against them. A film released this month claimed to use cellphone data and surveillance footage to prove that people were illegally stuffing drop boxes with ballots. Trump and his allies amplified those claims, but independent fact-checkers debunked them. The Associated Press reported the analysis was faulty and relied on "improper analysis" of cellphone data.

“I just cannot come up with a good reason for limiting the use of drop boxes other than voter suppression," Gronke said. "I simply can’t."

Contributing: Athens Banner-Herald reporter Stephanie Allen, The Associated Press, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Midterms: New laws limiting ballot drop boxes face primaries test