Ohio bill would require hundreds of ballot drop boxes be installed across state

Pictured is a Franklin County Board of Elections drop box used in 2020. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

Democratic lawmakers want to increase voter drop box access throughout the state of Ohio, proposing to install hundreds of boxes for future elections.

State Reps. Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland, and Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, believe the additional drop boxes will make voting more convenient for Ohioans seeking to cast absentee ballots.

State Reps. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, and Bride Rose Sweeney, D-Cleveland

Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who oversees Ohio elections, restricted each county to having one drop box apiece during the 2020 General Election — and is directing the 88 county boards of elections to follow the same rule in the upcoming May election.

House Bill 209 would significantly increase the number of drop boxes installed in Ohio.

It would require that each incorporated community, township, census-designated place and college/university campus have a drop box.

HB 209 separately sets a minimum number of drop boxes in a given county based on its number of registered voters:

  • Counties with more than 250,000 registered voters would need at least one drop box per every 12,500 voters
  • Counties with between 37,500 and 249,999 registered voters would need at least one drop box per every 15,000 voters
  • Counties with fewer than 37,500 voters would need at least two total drop boxes.

An Ohio Capital Journal analysis of the bill requirements found these minimums would require a statewide minimum of around 600 drop boxes:

The actual total would likely be much higher, given the added requirement of needing drop boxes in a swath of localities and campuses.

To use Wood County as an example, the county has 93,000 registered voters and thus would need a minimum of six drop boxes. However, the county has 26 separate incorporated communities, from the county seat of Bowling Green (with a local university campus) to the small village of Milton Center with a population of just 145.

Lepore-Hagan told the Ohio Capital Journal her estimate is that the total would be between 800 and 1,000 drop boxes statewide.

The state has strict rules for how ballots can be retrieved from drop boxes. Two election officials — one Republican and one Democrat — must empty ballots each day together. On Election Day, they must retrieve ballots and close the drop box promptly at 7:30 p.m. to coincide with polls closing. 

HB 209 also would require a “bipartisan team of election officials” to retrieve ballots at 7:30 p.m., with anyone waiting in line at that point to drop off ballots allowed to submit theirs. 

The bill specifies that county boards of elections would need to consider a variety of factors when deciding exactly where to place drop boxes, in order to “designate locations that are accessible to the community.” Boards would have to solicit public comment in the months before an election to hear suggestions of locations.

Drop box controversies

The issue of drop boxes have become a yearlong saga in Ohio over the past year.

After the March 2020 primary election was postponed, the state legislature decided upon a new plan to have the election run until April 28 through mostly absentee voting means. The plan required that each county place a drop box outside the county board of elections office.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is seen providing a General Election update in 2020. Screenshot courtesy The Ohio Channel.

Later in the year, LaRose issued a directive that offices use the drop boxes again for the General Election in November. His directive came with this restriction: “Boards of elections are prohibited from installing a drop box at any other location other than the board of elections.”

While other states allowed a greater number of drop boxes Michigan installed more than 700 last year — Ohio was limited to 88. Each county had one regardless of its size or population.

Voter rights groups complained that this restriction disenfranchised voters who wanted to vote absentee but had a difficult time reaching the single drop box in their county. 

LaRose’s office argued that with a vote-by-mail option available, each mailbox effectively served as a drop box. Pointing to concerns about post office delays last fall, advocates viewed drop boxes as being a valuable option for some voters.

LaRose faced lawsuits for his one-drop-box-per-county directive. Two separate court rulings found that nothing in state law prevented LaRose from allowing multiple drop boxes in a given county. But there is nothing in state law requiring it, either.

About a month before the election, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with LaRose, arguing that the election rules could not be altered during an election season (to change the rules in allowing more drop boxes). 

The Ohio Capital Journal inquired with LaRose’s office to see if the secretary had any comment about the bill and if he supports the proposals. A spokesperson said only that the office is reviewing the legislation.

“I certainly would hope that he would support it,” Lepore-Hagan said.

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