Opinion: The drop box emerges as a compromise between mail and the voting booth

A pedestrian walks past a King County ballot drop box, closed until ballots are mailed about three weeks before the election, on a Seattle street Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Credit: Elaine Thompson

Credit: Elaine Thompson

They could offer an affordable solution

There is no silver bullet that will save this pandemic-plagued election.

But there’s one solution that is so affordable, practical and achievable that it deserves special notice: ballot drop boxes.

For voters too afraid of the coronavirus to turn up at the polls, and worried the Postal Service will be too overwhelmed to deliver ballots on time, drop boxes — secure, locked structures that can be temporary or permanent — offer a relatively simple and confidence-boosting fix.

Drop boxes are increasingly popular, may be installed at the discretion of local election officials and will be used more widely than ever this year.

Of course, it’s not that simple. But drop boxes could be hard to stop.

While only eight states explicitly permit or require drop boxes for voting, at least 35 plan to use them this fall. And where state laws are silent on drop box use, local officials have the discretion and authority to implement them, say advocates of absentee voting.

Drop boxes could alleviate so many of the chronic ills that plague elections — from long lines to equipment breakdowns to poll worker shortages — that it’s a wonder they’re not more widely used already.

Even before the pandemic, drop box voting was going up.

In Washington — one of the five states that were proactively sending ballots and return envelopes to all voters even before the pandemic — 57 percent of the ballots were returned to a drop box in the last presidential election, up from 38 percent in 2012, according to a report last month.

Drop boxes are embraced by many GOP election officials and have been endorsed by the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency that offers mostly nonbinding guidance to states for balloting best practices. It recommends one drop box be created for every 15,000 to 20,000 registered voters.

Now, because of the coronavirus and intensifying postal delivery fears, election officials are poised to deploy drop boxes in record numbers. Dozens of absentee ballot drop boxes have already been set up across Georgia. (You can visit AJC.com to see where they are located.)

Some types of drop boxes require more funding and advance planning to install. The permanent, outdoor variety can cost $6,000. But temporary drop boxes may also be installed outdoors or indoors and staffed at drive-through locations at peak times or overseen by poll workers on Election Day.

In the capital of battleground Wisconsin, a Madison clerk capitalized on the security and convenience of book drops at libraries closed down because of Covid-19 to turn them into temporary ballot drop boxes for the primary.

Ballot drop boxes are not a panacea, but their simplicity and practicality have made them a potential fix that more and more election administrators have decided not to overlook.

Eliza Newlin Carney writes for The Fulcrum, a nonprofit digital news organization that focuses on redistricting, voting rights, election access, government ethics, civic engagement and the imbalance of powers.

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