The Republican War on Drop Boxes

A claw crane lifting a ballot drop box

For many Americans, ballot drop boxes — special, secure containers where voters can easily drop off ballots in sealed and signed envelopes — are a worry-free way to return their ballot directly to local election offices. They make casting your ballot more convenient while remaining secure and reducing the burden on both the postal service and local election administrators. But Republicans have decided they are unsafe and susceptible to fraud, despite a proven track record in many states — including red ones. What started as a Trump-led attack in 2020 has turned into an all-out Republican war on drop boxes, a cornerstone of their coordinated strategy to stop people from voting.

Drop boxes are a commonsense tool for voting.

Drop boxes offer voters an accessible, 24/7 option for returning their ballot. Voting becomes as easy as filling out a ballot at home and depositing it in a secure box whenever the voter has time, a much more convenient process than going to a polling place or dropping it off at an election office during their limited hours of operation. Drop boxes are more convenient for election officials too, as they allow election offices to collect ballots directly from voters. They don’t need to worry about issues with the U.S. Postal Service causing unforeseen delays in returning ballots. It’s no surprise, then, that they’re very popular in the states that use them — red, blue and purple states alike.

While drop boxes weren’t new in 2020, they certainly became more prominent. In response to concerns about the safety of in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, states took emergency measures to remedy these concerns by increasing mail-in voting even in states where this wasn’t historically common. States also implemented drop boxes for the first time as an obvious solution to cope with an unprecedented flood of mail-in ballots and nearly 40 states had drop boxes available in at least one county. Michigan even recommended that voters use drop boxes instead of the post office to return their ballots and set up hundreds of drop boxes across the state. Likewise, Georgia installed 144 boxes. In some Georgia counties, drop boxes were used by more than half of voters who chose to vote by mail. By making it easier to vote, mail-in voting and drop boxes both contributed to the sky-high voter turnout American saw in 2020.

But even before 2020, mail-in voting and drop boxes were gaining in popularity. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of mail ballots returned in both the presidential and midterm elections grew. In 2000, Oregon became the first state to vote entirely by mail and prior to 2020 five states — Hawaii, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington — had followed Oregon’s lead. As more people voted by mail, ballot drop boxes became a key tool for handling this increased volume of ballots. As data from Washington state show, more people chose to use drop boxes in every single election in almost every county in the state to a record high of 73% in 2020. Election clerks in Utah similarly observed that drop boxes grew more popular every year. Notably, Republican- and Democratic-led states alike used them for years without controversy.

Drop boxes became a casualty of Trump and the GOP’s attack on voting in 2020.

The increase in mail-in voting and corresponding proliferation of drop boxes came under attack from Trump and the GOP simply because both measures made it easier for people to vote. Trump first attacked mail-in voting itself, then tried to undermine the postal service’s ability to handle the volume of ballots. Soon after, he began to target drop boxes as well. In the lead-up to the election, Trump tweeted that “the Democrats are using Mail Drop Boxes, which are a voter security disaster.” Like his attacks on mail-in voting in general, this claim had no basis in reality. As Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) observed, drop boxes are a safe and secure voting method: “We haven’t had any issues with lost ballots or fraud.”

Republicans in many states soon followed Trump’s lead and began restricting the deployment of drop boxes even if the state had previously used them without controversy. Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) limited each county to a single drop box no matter how populous. Similarly, the Texas Supreme Court upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) order limiting every county to a single ballot drop-off location — from Loving County (population of 64 people) to Harris County (population of 4.7 million people). In other states, Republicans moved to ban drop boxes entirely, and Missouri officials decided against deploying 80 boxes the state had already purchased.

In states where Republicans didn’t control the levers of government, they tried to ban drop boxes using the courts. In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign sued to invalidate the use of drop boxes in the primary election and prevent their use in the general election. Then after the election, Republicans pointed to drop boxes as a reason to question the results in a lawsuit filed in Michigan. While neither of these legal efforts succeeded, they and the other attacks did help turn drop boxes from a commonsense tool of election administration to a deeply politicized issue in the fight to protect voting access — they only became controversial once Trump decided he didn’t like them because they help more people vote.

Attacks on drop boxes continue to gain traction across the country.

States that restrict drop boxes surrounding a drop box.

This assault on drop boxes didn’t stop in 2020; if anything, it’s only grown and intensified. Many of the voter suppression laws passed by Republicans last year directly target drop boxes. For example, Georgia, despite using drop boxes in 2020 without incident, limited boxes to a maximum of one for every 100,000 voters, a restriction that will reduce the number of boxes in the core Atlanta counties from 111 to just 23. The law also restricts the hours drop boxes are available and limits their use to just the early voting period. The sole purpose of drop boxes is to be easily accessible to voters — these restrictions nullify the features that make them so vital.

More fully, the coordinated attack on drop boxes is clearly demonstrated by new laws in other states. Iowa’s new law restricts drop boxes to a single box at the office of the county election commissioner that will be inaccessible when the office is closed. Florida’s Senate Bill 90 restricts drop boxes to early vote locations and requires them to be monitored in person at all times. In Wisconsin, a conservative group has filed a legal challenge that could result in drop boxes being permanently banned in the state. Just last week, the judge in the case issued a ruling in favor the plaintiffs, jeopardizing the future of drop boxes in the state.

As we move into the midterm election cycle and look ahead to 2024, we can only expect these attacks to grow — especially following the Senate’s failure to pass protections for drop boxes in the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. Already, noted conspiracy theorist and Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers (R) has prefiled a bill in Arizona that restricts both drive-thru voting and drop boxes in a state with a long history of voting by mail and even has a permanent absentee voter list open to all voters. In Georgia, Republicans decided the restrictions they enacted last year didn’t go far enough and the Senate president has introduced a new bill that would ban drop boxes completely. Even in Utah, Republicans are cooling on drop boxes, with a group organizing to put an initiative on the ballot in 2022 that would eliminate mail voting entirely and drop boxes with it.

Drop boxes are essential to protecting the right to vote.

The Republican hypocrisy surrounding ballot drop boxes doesn’t change the fact that they are safe, convenient and popular. Anyone who seeks to ensure more people can vote and make their voice heard in our political process should be championing them as the commonsense tool they are. Thankfully, Democrats in many states are doing exactly that, making permanent the emergency use of drop boxes in 2020 and easing future voting for millions. As Republican attacks continue, it’s essential we push back against these lies and continue to work to make drop boxes widely available for all voters.