COLUMBUS, Ohio – How many drop boxes can each Ohio county set up for collecting absentee ballots cast in the November presidential election, and where can they be located? It's a seemingly simple question with a complicated answer.
A flurry of sometimes conflicting court rulings on Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose's directive restricting the boxes to one per county, combined with steps LaRose has taken attempting to clarify the issue, have made it more confusing. As legal proceedings promised to stretch the dispute past Election Day, voting rights organizations ultimately opted to dismiss their complaint.
Here's a look at how the issue unfolded:
Q: WHAT DID THE INITIAL DIRECTIVE SAY?
A: The first directive, issued on Aug. 12, prohibited installing drop boxes “at any other location other than the board of elections.” All references were to a singular box, not multiple boxes, which the order defined as “a secure receptacle outside the office for the return of ballots.”
Ohio has seen a record number of absentee ballot requests in 2020, more than 2.1 million in the presidential battleground state as of the first day of early voting last week. In Ohio, completed ballots can be turned in by mail, in person or at a drop box.
Q: WHAT PROMPTED THE DIRECTIVE?
A: LaRose, who oversees state elections, was getting questions about whether counties could set up multiple drop boxes, an option growing in popularity as absentee and mail-in ballot use increases nationally due to the coronavirus. Ohio state lawmakers had passed an emergency coronavirus bill in March that required every county to set up a single secure drop box as a convenience during the April 7 primary. The language was designed to be temporary, but many people — including LaRose and some county election officials — were unclear on whether the provision applied to the general election and whether it was meant to be a limit on the number of drop boxes.
Q: HOW WAS ONE DROP BOX SETTLED ON?
A: On July 20, LaRose asked Republican Attorney General Dave Yost for legal advice settling the issue. LaRose rescinded that request on Aug. 11, saying it was taking too long and boards needed an answer now. (Yost's office has said the opinion was imminent.)
Ultimately, LaRose, a former state senator, said the Legislature makes policy and he would defer to the last position lawmakers had taken on the matter. He used the exact language from the March legislation that specified a single drop box, but further prohibited having more than one. LaRose repeatedly said he would support additional drop boxes if it was made clear he had the legal authority. At a Statehouse news conference, he said it was a “fine idea” but that he feared deviating from the March legislation would prompt litigation. He also worried multiple boxes could present a security risk and burden election boards already swamped with new responsibilities amid the virus.
Q: DIDN'T LAROSE GET SUED ANYWAY?
A: Yes. The first suit was filed by the Ohio Democratic Party on Aug. 25. Democrats argued that LaRose's order unnecessarily impeded the right to vote during a pandemic and in a manner not required under state law. Party Chairman David Pepper said the suit would help settle the question of LaRose's legal authority. President Donald Trump's reelection campaign and other Republican committees jumped in to defend the order. The trial judge sided with Democrats, declaring LaRose's order “unreasonable and arbitrary” and blocking it. The state’s 10th District Court of Appeals unblocked it until it could hear the case. A three-judge panel of the court agreed with Democrats' legal arguments in an Oct. 2 ruling: The order was unreasonable and LaRose was not beholden to abide by that temporary March law. But they also said that while the order might be misguided, it wasn't illegal. They declined to require LaRose to change it.
Q: HOW DID LAROSE RESPOND?
A: LaRose issued a new directive on Oct. 5 cast as a “clarification” of the earlier order, telling county election boards that the earlier order “never prohibited and does not prohibit a board of elections from installing more than one secure receptacle outside the office of the board of elections." The phrase “outside the board of elections” was italicized in bold, prompting more questions. Was it broad permission to collect ballots off of board property, an essential reversal of the initial order? LaRose's office said no: More than one box would now be allowed but only “outside” on board property.
Q: SO HOW DID THIS LAND IN FEDERAL COURT?
A: The A. Philip Randolph Institute, a civil rights group founded by Black union members, filed a separate federal suit in Cleveland in late August along with other voting rights groups. Judge Dan Polster had paused that suit waiting to see what the state courts would say. He ordered LaRose to try to work things out in the meantime. Through those negotiations, LaRose agreed on Sept. 28 to allow the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections to set up an additional drop box across the street from its building, off of board property. LaRose rejected the board's plan to also collect ballots at six public libraries throughout the county.
Q: WHERE DOES THE FEDERAL SUIT STAND?
A: The day after LaRose issued his new order, Polster weighed in. He interpreted “outside” a board of elections as broadly permitting drop boxes at multiple locations throughout each of Ohio's 88 counties, partly because LaRose had already permitted a drop box off a board's property. He dismissed the voting groups' lawsuit, saying their concerns appeared to be remedied.
But LaRose's office said the order had been misinterpreted. He ordered the election board not to proceed with its library plan. Following a plea by the plaintiffs, Polster agreed to reconsider the case and again blocked the order. LaRose appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which temporarily restored the directive. After the court postponed further activity in the case until after Election Day, advocates dropped the suit just 11 days before the election.