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Ohio's Ballot Drop Box Limits Lead To Allegations Of Voter Suppression

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How will mail-in ballots be collected and counted this fall? Problems with the U.S. Postal Service raised questions about mail delivery. To address that, some states are deploying drop boxes for ballots. But in Ohio, there are limits on drop boxes, which are leading to charges of voter suppression. Ohio Public Radio's Jo Ingles reports.

JO INGLES, BYLINE: While drop boxes for ballots are relatively new in Ohio, they are common across the country. Lawrence Norden studies voting trends for the New York-based Brennan Center.

LAWRENCE NORDEN: Thirty-nine states and Washington, D.C., will use drop boxes this fall. In states like Colorado or Washington state that have had high numbers of mail voting for a long time, they're extremely common. And in fact, while we often talk about those states as being mail voting states, most people don't mail their ballots back. They drop them off in places like drop boxes.

INGLES: I'm standing here at the ballot drop box at the Delaware County Board of Elections. This suburban Columbus county is one of the wealthiest in the state, reliably conservative. The board of elections is housed in modest offices inside a strip mall that's anchored by a Big Lots store. And this drop box is behind the building next to the dumpsters.

MINDY HEDGES: I decided to do a drop box instead of putting it in the mail.

INGLES: That's Delaware County voter Mindy Hedges (ph) who plans to use this drop box for her paper ballot this election.

HEDGES: But the problem is there's only one drop box in Delaware County and in every county, and that creates a big issue, not necessarily for me. Thankfully, I have a car, but a lot of people don't.

INGLES: Denise Driehaus is a member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections near Cincinnati. She says even if voters have cars to get to that county's one drop box, there are still problems.

DENISE DRIEHAUS: There's always a line that wraps around the building, both to drop the ballots but also the early voting. And so it gets so congested in the parking lot, in the streets that are surrounding the board of elections. It's just a mess.

INGLES: And a mess is what voting rights activists fear. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose installed one drop box at each county board of elections before the April primary to help manage the expected surge of mail-in ballots. But that's still one drop box per county, even ones with more than a million residents. Activists accuse LaRose of sending mixed signals. He first said he wanted more drop boxes but couldn't add them without legislative approval. The state's Democratic Party sued. And early this month, a court ruled the state could and should add more drop boxes. But rather than do that, Frank LaRose appealed that order.

And now that you've got a court who says, yeah, you can go ahead and put those drop boxes in, you know, why not go ahead and do it? You said you wanted them.

FRANK LAROSE: Yeah, not going to get into the sort of ongoing legal wrangling, but this one decision is not the sum total of the legal process. And we've got to allow everything to play out that's going to play out.

INGLES: Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper wants the secretary of state to order more drop boxes now before voting begins in a couple of weeks.

DAVID PEPPER: This is a box. This isn't sending a rocket to the moon. It's a box. In the primary, they set up boxes all over this state on a very short timeframe.

INGLES: There's another lawsuit in federal court. At this point, nearly 2 million Ohioans have requested mail-in ballots, on pace to set a new record. Whether voters will have to return them by mail or have a convenient drop box to put them in is still very much an open question here. For NPR News, I'm Jo Ingles in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "MY FUTURE IS BRIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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