• Politics

Ballot Drop Boxes Are Emerging as a Vote-By-Mail Alternative—But They Have Critics, Too

6 minute read

The big steel drop boxes, where people will be able to physically deposit their ballots, rather than mailing them in, are not even installed in Champaign County, Illinois yet, and county clerk Aaron Ammons says he’s already received a wave of feedback: people love them.

“[Drop boxes] are absolutely safe,” says Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, “and they’ve been utilized in various states over a long period of time.”

Enthusiasm for ballot drop boxes has not, of course, materialized from thin air. In recent weeks, the nation has been gripped by a growing panic over whether the United States Postal Service will be able to handle what many election experts predict will be a surge in mailed ballots for the November election, as voters attempt to avoid crowded polling places during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Champaign County is one of many places across the country installing or expanding their use of drop boxes.

But the move toward drop boxes is not without controversy. Even as many places have expanded their use, others have pushed back or limited them. Tennessee’s Secretary of State recently told a U.S. Senate committee that he feared drop boxes were a security concern. In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee sued the secretary of state and county Boards of Election over drop box use in the primary. And in Ohio, where the state required that a drop box be placed in each of its 88 counties for the primary, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose — who says they were “absolutely” secure during the primary — has argued that he does not have the legal authority to expand drop boxes for the general election beyond the one per county. Democrats from the state have accused him of voter suppression.

“Anything you do in Ohio elections can tend to result in litigation, and so we’ve got to be cautious about this,” LaRose tells TIME, noting that he’s pushing to get postage paid return envelopes for ballots so that voters can easily return mail ballots. “For me, without any legal authority to go out and tell the boards of elections that they can install one over by city hall and over by the courthouse, and another one over by the library, would certainly be, I believe, outside the grounds of what I’m legally permitted to do.”

President Donald Trump further complicated the debate on Aug. 17, tweeting without evidence that ballot drop boxes were vulnerable to tampering. “Some states use ‘drop boxes’ for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots. So who is going to ‘collect’ the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation? A Rigged Election?” he wrote.

But election officials across the country insist there’s nothing to be concerned about. “We’ve looked at this. I’ve looked at the other states who’ve … had drop boxes for years,” Ammons says. “This is just more gaslighting, if you will, in trying to create some sort of controversy around it to make people feel that they are unsafe.” The drop boxes Ammons ordered are quarter inch steel, weigh between 250 and 750 pounds, and will be cemented to the ground in the same way that ATMs are, he said.

In Washington state, for example, which conducts all elections by mail, voters use drop boxes regularly. Voter fraud in the U.S. is rare, and states have security measures in place to ensure the person filling out the ballot is indeed who they say they are.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission recommends that election officials install one drop box for every 15,000 to 20,000 registered voters, noting that jurisdictions should consider adding more where communities have not used vote-by-mail often. The agency also notes jurisdictions should take into account local data, such as whether it is an urban or rural setting, to develop guidelines on how many are appropriate. In terms of specific placement, the guidelines include taking into consideration lighting, security, and accessibility.

Champaign County’s drop boxes will be installed as a result of state legislation that Illinois passed in response to coronavirus, giving counties the option of having them. Ammons has held several information sessions with county election judge, teams of whom will be responsible for collecting the ballots twice a day, every day, until the final votes are cast on Nov. 3. Each collection team will include a Republican and a Democrat; the teams will seal the bag in the presence of one another before returning the bag to where ballots will be sorted. Ammons says the election judges have been supportive of expanding drop boxes in the county.

Meanwhile, election officials remain concerned over delays in mail delivery. The Washington Post first reported that the USPS sent letters to 46 states and the District of Columbia at the end of July warning that it could not guarantee ballots would be delivered on time to meet state deadlines.

Problems with mailed ballots were already an issue during some state primaries, including in New York, where the election system was overwhelmed by the number of absentee ballots. In July, Trump’s new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, began implementing a series of so-called reform measures, including restricting staff overtime and transportation costs, which led to backlogs in mail delivery across the country.

But even as the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced on Aug. 18 that he’d suspend many of his proposed reforms until after the November election, many state election officials have continued embracing ballot drop boxes, in part because they reduce the number of people who need to physically walk into a polling place, lessening the public health risk.

With so much uncertainty in the air, election officials are advising voters to be proactive: ensure that your address and registration are up to date, then mail or otherwise deposit the ballot as soon as you can; vote early if you can’t vote by mail; and if your jurisdiction allows it, use the tracking system to trace your ballot for additional assurance that it arrived at its destination.

“There’s no reason to wait,” says Jocelyn Bucaro, Director of Elections in Denver. “Buy yourself as much time as possible and be proactive as a voter in this election and make sure that you’re ready to vote now.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com