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While Ohio Officials And Advocates Fight Over Drop Boxes, Voters Make Their Own Plans

Clark County Board of Elections Deputy Director Amber Lopez next to the county's drop box.
Nick Evans
Clark County Board of Elections Deputy Director Amber Lopez next to the county's drop box.

The election is well under way in Ohio. Thousands of voters around the state braved chilly mornings and long lines to cast their ballot in the first week of early voting.

While that part of the election appears to be working well, many voters still have doubts about voting in-person or relying on the mail. Ballot drop boxes, with their lack of person-to-person contact and 24-hour availability, seem like a perfect solution.

There’s just one problem: Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s ongoing effort to limit the use of drop boxes. LaRose is allowing counties to set up more than one drop box, but he argues that putting them anywhere except on boards of elections' properties compromises security.

“As a matter of public policy, I would love to see more drop boxes, I think it would be a great convenience,” LaRose said at an August pollworker recruitment event. “The question though is, do I have the legal authority to do that, and I sincerely don’t believe I have the legal authority to do that without risking additional lawsuits, voter confusion and that kind of thing.”

Democrats and voting rights groups like the League of Women Voters sued LaRose over his drop box limits, and LaRose has been fighting in court for months to keep it in place.

League of Women Voters of Ohio executive director Jen Miller says this is not the year to limit voting options.

“It serves every voter,” Miller insists. “It helps seniors, people with disabilities, low-income Ohioans, those who live in rural areas or suburban areas. It’s a no-brainer to have multiple ballot drop off locations when so many Ohioans are wanting to vote absentee.”

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster said the Secretary of State is misreading state law, and can’t bar county boards from collecting ballots off-site. However, LaRose is appealing the ruling.

Late Friday, a divided appeals court panel agreed to keep the limit in place while the lawsuit plays out. Even if LaRose is unsuccessful, county boards still have to vote on off-site plans, and make staffing and security arrangements.

So in practice, many Ohio counties could still be stuck with a single drop off location.

Sylvia Sharp lives in Berwick on Columbus’ East Side, about a 20-minute drive from the county’s only drop box on Morse Road. She’s worried about voting in person, and she’s skeptical of the mail right now, citing a letter that took weeks to arrive at a relative in Nashville after her brother’s funeral.

Sharp is retired and disabled, and many people in her social orbit don’t get around great either, so she’s making a point of offering rides for those who want to drop off their ballots.

“We can wear our masks, we can roll the windows down in the car and go there, and they can put it in the box, where they know that, hey, I put it in the box, I was there,” Sharp explains.

The secure ballot drop box at the Franklin County Board of Elections on Morse Road.
Credit Darrin McDonald / WOSU
The secure ballot drop box at the Franklin County Board of Elections on Morse Road.

Columbus Stand Up, the organization of former Democratic congressional candidate Morgan Harper, is doing the same thing on a bigger scale, organizing a kind of DIY Uber for early voting.

“The name of the game right now is recruiting as many drivers as possible, making sure they have a good set up in their car, and then identifying the folks who are going to need these rides to exercise their right to vote," Harper says.

In Franklin County, the primary challenge will likely be getting to the board of elections on 1700 Morse Road. Board officials expect heavy traffic, but being located on a major thoroughfare with a large parking lot gives them flexibility.

In nearby Clark County, Board of Elections deputy director Amber Lopez explains simply managing the traffic around the drop box could be a challenge.

“Parking just in general is not a great thing here, and it’s also not an easy parking lot to get in to,” Lopez says. “I don’t know if you noticed, it’s a sharp turn when you pull in, and it’s even harder going out. And when there's a line of cars, it's just very hard for people to get in and out of the parking lot.”

The Clark County Board of Elections took the unusual step of moving its early voting center to a theater in downtown Springfield, to make sure there was adequate room for social distance, and to better manage traffic.

New Carlisle, Ohio.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
New Carlisle, Ohio.

Meanwhile, Clark County residents living outside Springfield still have to find a way into town if they want to vote early.

In New Carlisle, on the western edge of the county, City Council member Dale Grimm – a supporter of President Trump – dismisses those transportation concerns.

“If something is important to you, you will make sure it happens,” Grimm says. “There’s nothing wrong with going to the high school on November 3. Like I said, if it’s important, you’ll make it happen. If it’s not important, you’ll look for excuses to get around it.”

Like Sharp, Grimm distrusts the mail, but says when he casts his ballot it will be on Election Day, in person.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.