Ohio SoS Extends, Restricts Use Of Drop Boxes for 2020 General

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Ohio’s Secretary of State issued a directive yesterday extending the use of drop boxes at county election offices for the 2020 general election – but the directive is generating controversy because it says that single drop box is the only one that is permitted this fall. Cleveland.com has more:

Secretary of State Frank LaRose said Wednesday he is banning county boards of elections from offering more than one drop box for completed absentee ballots this November, saying it’s grown too late to make changes to how Ohio will administer this year’s presidential election.

LaRose, a Republican, more than three weeks ago formally asked Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, also a Republican, for a legal opinion on whether the extra drop boxes were allowed under state law.

But LaRose said Wednesday Yost had not yet responded, and that it’s now too late make such an election change. Early voting in Ohio begins on Oct. 6, while the election is on Nov. 3. He said offering extra drop boxes, which Democrats and voting-rights activists say is legal, would invite lawsuits that could upend the process of preparing for the election.

The move led to a swift reaction from Democrats, who accused LaRose of voter suppression, saying the request of Yost was just a charade that would allow LaRose to eventually run out the clock.

Opponents aren’t buying the argument that the directive is necessary because the legislature needs to act:

Voting-rights advocates and elections officials, including in Cleveland, had requested extra drop-boxes at locations such as public libraries as a way to reduce in-person voting lines and relieve pressure on the mail system. Elections officials expect an unprecedented level of interest in mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has nothing to do with the legislature, who LaRose likes to blame for everything he doesn’t want to do,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper said on Twitter. “This is his decision to artificially limit drop boxes to one per county. It’s a terrible decision, totally disregarding voter safety.”

The SoS, on the other hand, says that limiting drop boxes to one per county will avoid litigation over the issue, which is already underway in a neighboring state:

LaRose, meanwhile, pointed to the example of Pennsylvania, where President Donald Trump’s campaign sued state officials in late June over their plan to offer similar drop boxes. The lawsuit is still pending.

“I don’t want to subject our county boards of election to a bunch of wasteful litigation, but I do hope our legislature weighs in on it,” he said, speaking at a news conference in Columbus.

The underlying legal issue is an election bill enacted for the state’s delayed primary; the directive is intended to extend the mandate for drop boxes but the SoS is hesitant to increae the number of boxes allowed absent advice from the Attorney General or new legislation:

Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said Yost was preparing to issue an opinion on multiple drop boxes this week, but LaRose withdrew the request on Tuesday, she said.

Under a coronavirus-relief bill passed in March, each of Ohio’s 88 counties was required to offer a secure drop box for completed ballots outside their board of elections headquarters. That requirement expired when the primary election ended, although the physical boxes are still there. LaRose’s guidance to county elections boards issued Wednesday requires them to keep them there, and to accept both completed ballots and completed ballot applications.

But nothing under state law bars elections officials from offering more than one drop box, Democrats, elections officials in large counties and voting-rights advocates have argued.

LaRose has called the issue a “legal gray area,” and asked Yost’s office for additional clarity. But he said Wednesday he would support adding drop boxes if it were explicitly spelled out in a new state law.

But the legislature hasn’t yet moved on the request – and seems unlikely to do so given the recent indictment of the Speaker of the House:

But the state legislature has been slow to respond to other changes backed by LaRose, such as allowing Ohioans to request absentee ballot forms online — rather than the current paper form — or setting an earlier deadline for voters to request an absentee ballot, which would give extra time for the multi-step process to work through the mail system.

The legislature also failed to grant LaRose permission to add pre-paid postage on ballot request forms and blank mail-in ballots.

In a gentle rebuke of the legislature, LaRose said the recent arrest of former House Speaker Larry Householder, and the political chaos that ensued, may have distracted the legislature from moving forward on elections legislation.

“It’s disappointing with the chaos created, that the situation in the House, perhaps they’ve had their eyes on other priorities,” LaRose said. “Because I wish they’d partner with me and county boards of elections that have been asking for a long time to get these things done.”

LaRose said he still plans to request legislative permission, via the state controlling board, to pay for postage on ballot mailings, if he gets additional federal funding to pay for it. LaRose’s office plans to send absentee ballot request forms to millions of Ohioans in September.

“I think that it’s a good thing for Ohio to have that. But again, I’m not going to act outside the law and subject Ohio to a bunch of litigation on this, particularly when I think that’s litigation that we would likely lose,” he said.

Given the strong reaction from Democrats and advocates to this directive, it seems like the SoS’ desire to avoid a lawsuit may be somewhat unrealistic – making the prospect of more election litigation a virtual certainty in the Buckeye State with less than twelve weeks until Election Day. Stay tuned …

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