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Ohio Secretary Of State Again Limits Ballot Drop Boxes For 2021 Primary

Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose speaks during a media tour of the Delaware County Board of Elections in Delaware, Ohio, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.
Paul Vernon
Associated Press
Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose speaks during a media tour of the Delaware County Board of Elections in Delaware, Ohio, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has reissued a contentious order limiting the number of ballot drop boxes to one per county for the May 4 primary.

The directive, issued Friday, came after LaRose was asked to break a tie in Hamilton County over whether expanding drop boxes should be studied.

"By a majority vote, boards of elections may install additional secure receptacles outside the board of elections," the directive reads. "Boards of elections are prohibited from installing and implementing a secure receptacle at a location other than the board of elections."

Election boards can also permit bipartisan teams of employees to personally receive absentee ballots from voters outside the building.

"As the United States sixth district court of appeals opined in the decisive ruling on this issue in 2020, Ohio is 'generous when it comes to absentee voting.' This directive maintains that posture while the newly seated General Assembly takes up the question of the time, manner and location of alternative means for voters to return absentee ballots other than the United States Postal Service," wrote Maggie Sheehan, spokeswoman for the Ohio Secretary of State, in a statement.

Sheehan pointed to statistics showing that Ohio's early voters had an overall 93.4% return rate in the 2020 election, higher than many neighboring states. But voting rights advocates say the directive is still a step in the wrong direction.

"We need to EXPAND – not limit – the number of drop boxes per county," the ACLU of Ohio tweeted in response to the directive. "One would think, in a world still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, giving voters expanded access to in-person, socially distant, absentee voting would be a no brainer."

A virtually identical order LaRose issued in 2020 sparked litigation by the Ohio Democratic Party and voting and civil rights groups. Expecting a spike in the number of voters using mail-in and absentee ballots during the pandemic, LaRose told county board of elections that they could establish a "secure receptacle" for depositing ballots around-the-clock, but only at their election board headquarters.

LaRose argued that the state legislature alone had the ability to expand where those drop boxes could be located. But voting rights advocates disagreed, saying the directive disproportionately hurt voters in rural areas and those who lacked transportation, as county election boards are often not centrally-located and difficult to access without cars. Critics also raised concerns about slowdowns at the U.S. Postal Service potentially impacting the delivery of mail-in ballots.

LaRose's order was allowed to stand by the courts, but multiple judges rejected the idea that LaRose needs additional legislative action before authorizing drop boxes at multiple locations.

LaRose continued to defend his order against those court rulings, arguing that it was too close to the start of voting to make changes. Voting rights groups ultimately dropped their lawsuit in October.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.