States target ballot drop boxes in fight over voting rights
At the Leon County Courthouse, 2020 voters could vote early in person or by dropping their ballots in a drop box. Credit: Diane Rado
Ballot drop boxes are so secure they’ve survived getting hit by an SUV and rolled by a school bus — yet much of the battle over voting rights has centered on the big metal boxes.
In the November 2020 general election, nearly 40 states had ballot drop boxes available and more voters used drop boxes than in any election in U.S. history, according to a report from the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.
But in the lead up to the election and the years since, the boxes have become the focus of controversy in state legislatures from Florida to Georgia to Texas to Nebraska and in courts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In many states, Republican lawmakers want to limit or end voters’ choice to return their ballots to drop boxes, citing the potential for tampering or fraud — though there’s no proof that’s happened.
Larry Olson, vice president of Laserfab, a Washington state-based metal fabrication company that has manufactured drop boxes since 2010, recognizes the irony of all the attention on metal boxes in 2022.
Olson has traveled to election conferences across the country with county and state election officials. “I always find it funny,” he said. “I’m surrounded by all these people with voting on iPads and all these different ballot tabulations and I’m just sitting there trying to sell a big metal box. It’s the lowest of the lowest tech you can have.”
Olson, whose company has roughly 800 drop boxes in use scattered across the country, said there’s little validity to lawmakers’ security concerns.
“It’s difficult to say you can 100 percent stop anybody from doing anything, but we have found through history that this is a very secure way to vote,” he said. “I do think a certain portion of that argument is very, shall we say, political in nature.”
Bolted to the ground
The metal box fabrication companies involved in making drop boxes know that security has to be a priority if counties are going to use their products. The boxes are designed in close collaboration with election officials, Olson said.
“Every design feature we talked about with the early counties came back to a concern about the integrity of the process,” Olson said. “Everything we considered, that was the overriding question.”
Olson explained some of the steps that Laserfab has taken to ensure that ballots can’t be tampered with or damaged:
- The top of its drop boxes isn’t flat, so water and rain won’t pool toward the access door and get ballots wet.
- The boxes are equipped with flanges above the slots that make it difficult for somebody to pour water into the box.
- The slots and access door are designed so they have to be locked shut and can’t be shut by themselves, making it impossible for a worker to forget to lock them.
Ballot drop boxes are generally bolted to the ground, weigh roughly 1,000 pounds, and are designed to withstand any kind of weather, from torrential downpours to snow and wind.
In October 2020, a suspected arsonist lit a piece of paper on fire and put it into one of Laserfab’s drop boxes, damaging an estimated 100 ballots (there isn’t enough air inside the box for a fire to do much damage). When the fire department arrived at the scene in Los Angeles County, firefighters had to use a saw to open the box.
“It’s nearly impossible to get a crowbar or anything in there and open up the access door, so they had to saw the door to get it open,” Olson said.
A similar incident occurred in Boston a week later, but after the fire was put out, the drop box remained open for ballots.
Most boxes are placed somewhere with video surveillance or monitored by a security guard, and typically they only allow one or two ballots to be inserted at a time.
“It’s little design features like that that make it very difficult — I hate to say it’s impossible — to tamper with anything, but folks like us who do this, we take every step to minimize the possibility,” Olson said.
Still, former President Donald Trump made the boxes a target of attack. Prior to the 2020 election, he tweeted that “the Democrats are using Mail Drop Boxes, which are a voter security disaster.”
In a statement shared on Twitter last month, he maintained that claim. “Drop boxes are only good for Democrats and cheating, not good for Republicans,” he said.
Other Republicans are following his lead.
“Drop boxes were introduced as an emergency measure during the pandemic, but many counties did not follow the security guidelines in place, such as the requirement for camera surveillance on every drop box,” Georgia state Sen. Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor, said in a written statement when he introduced legislation to ban drop boxes.
“Moving forward, we can return to a pre-pandemic normal of voting in person,” he added. “Removing drop boxes will help rebuild the trust that has been lost.”
Amber McReynolds, a national election administration expert and former election official from Denver, said that drop boxes benefit people of all political persuasions and they only became controversial because Trump and his allies didn’t understand them.
“It literally is just a secure way for people to submit their ballots in person,” she said. “Frankly, I ran elections for 13 years and drop boxes provide better security than even the post boxes.”
“We’ve run the data on this,” she added. “People like the idea of voting at home, spending their time researching issues, but they still like the idea of submitting it in person, so the drop boxes give them the best of both worlds.”
Drop boxes first became commonplace in the Western states that were the first to move to all-mail elections — Washington, Colorado, and Oregon.
“They were our first big customers and it kind of exploded from there,” Olson said.
Over the past two decades, their use has expanded, first in states with all-mail elections like Republican-controlled Utah and then in other blue and red states across the country.
“Counties have added additional drop boxes almost every year since 2014,” Justin Lee, Utah’s former director of elections, told Politifact in 2020. “We haven’t had any security problems, and we have no indication that drop boxes favor one party over another party.”
During the 2016 general election, nearly 1 in 6 U.S. voters cast their ballot using a drop box. In Colorado, nearly 75 percent of all voters used a drop box.
That number increased in 2020, as more voters chose to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. Postal Service slowdowns, which made voters and election officials concerned about whether the mail could be trusted to deliver a ballot before strict deadlines.
Murray Morgan, president and CEO of Kingsley, a California-based manufacturer of metal drop boxes, said his company had been making library book returns for decades but got into the ballot drop box business in 2020 when the demand became clear.
“We thought, ‘Hey, there’s a market there if we deliver the right product,’” he said. “We changed the depository opening of our units, we beefed them up for security. We’ve done numerous things to address the concerns of states regarding the safety of the ballot returns.”
Morgan said his company had roughly 400 dispersed across the country for the 2020 election, but expects to be able to produce thousands for future elections.
New push for regulation
Before the 2020 election, only eight states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington state — had laws explicitly concerning drop boxes.
But the new political attention on the method of voting has brought a push from state lawmakers to regulate or limit their use.
A new bill introduced in Utah, where drop boxes have been popular for almost a decade, would require 24-hour video surveillance at ballot drop boxes.
In Georgia, the use of drop boxes declined from 2020 to 2021 after the state took steps to limit their use, including a cap at one box per 100,000 active registered voters or one for each early voting location (whichever is smaller).
Voters were also restricted to using the boxes when early voting sites were open. The change was felt most dramatically in the most populous counties, including those in the Atlanta metro area.
Georgia state Sen. Butch Miller has proposed legislation to ban the use of drop boxes altogether.
Like Georgia, Florida limited the use of drop boxes with a bill last year that only allows election supervisors to place drop boxes in their counties during early voting hours. The boxes also must be placed at a permanent, staffed voting site. Supervisors who try to offer more drop boxes during additional times are subject to $25,000 fines.
In Wisconsin, a judge last month banned the use of drop boxes, but then an appeals court reinstated them for the February primary. The state Supreme Court said it would take up the case but left the appeals court ruling in effect in the meantime.
McReynolds said she believes the political contention over drop boxes is a symptom of the larger politicization of the democratic process.
“I really think it was politicized because people felt that it hurt them, or one person felt it hurt him,” McReynolds said. “If it wasn’t drop boxes, or it wasn’t vote-by-mail, it would have been early voting, or it would have been automatic voter registration. It almost seems like regardless, one of them would have been called out simply for making it easier for people to vote.”
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