Trump targets ballot drop boxes in effort to discredit vote-by-mail

Washington — President Trump has opened a new front in his war on mail-in voting, adding ballot drop boxes to his enemy list even as they’re mostly being embraced as a way to expand access to voting. He has been stoking fears that mail-in voting invites voter fraud and is suggesting ballots could be tampered with once voters deposit them into drop boxes.

“So now the Democrats are using Mail Drop Boxes, which are a voter security disaster. Among other things, they make it possible for a person to vote multiple times. Also, who controls them, are they placed in Republican or Democrat areas? They are not Covid sanitized. A big fraud!” the president tweeted Sunday.

Twitter placed a “public interest notice” on the tweet for “violating our Civic Integrity Policy for making misleading health claims that could potentially dissuade people from participation in voting.”

On Mr. Trump’s question about “who controls them,” federal guidelines written by the bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission say drop boxes “must be secured and locked at all times,” and “[o]nly an election official or a designated ballot drop box collection team should have access to the keys and/or combination of the lock.” Many states require unmanned drop boxes to be under continuous surveillance and placed in well-lit areas.

The guidelines also demand that chain of custody logs be completed “every time ballots are collected.” The ballot collection teams are “[i]deally bipartisan teams (poll workers or temporary workers) hired to drive a collection route and pick up ballots on a regular basis.” 

As for the claim that they’re “not Covid sanitized,” drop boxes in fact help to limit exposure to the virus. The husband of presidential counselor, Kellyanne Conway, frequent Trump critic George Conway, recently dropped off his wife’s primary ballot. “The dropbox was clean,” he tweeted, “but I didn’t have to touch it because there was a narrow, clearly marked slot to put the ballot in!”

In Georgia, where the election board first approved the use of drop boxes for its June primary, they’re required to be located on government property and must have adequate lighting and 24-hour video monitoring. They’re also required to be fastened to the ground or another “immovable fixture.” For collection of the ballots from a drop box, Georgia requires two election officials to be present. 

Jordan Fuchs, Georgia’s deputy secretary of state, called claims that drop boxes are not secure “silly.”

“If somebody is doing something that looks off, it will be caught through security cameras,” she told CBS News.

Fuchs said drop boxes worked well in counties that used them in June, and the state is encouraging each of Georgia’s 159 counties to install at least one drop box for the general election. To help alleviate cost concerns, the state reopened a grant process that allows counties to seek up to $3,000 to offset up to 75% of the cost of drop boxes, including their purchase and installation. The average drop box costs about $6,000.

The Postal Service is bracing for an avalanche of mail-in ballots amid the pandemic, elections experts say drop boxes can safely alleviate the strain on the mail system. They enable voters to return absentee ballots without postage and without coming into physical contact with another person.

“With the politicization of the U.S. Postal Service and mail voting, this is a good alternative,” said Loren Collingwod, a political scientist at University of California, Riverside, who has researched drop boxes and voter turnout. “A lot of people are going to feel more comfortable using the drop boxes.”

Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign feels otherwise. It’s embroiled in a legal battle in Pennsylvania over the use of drop boxes in some counties in the state’s June 2 primary and is trying to prevent their use for the November general election.

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FILE: Voters drop off their presidential primary mail-in ballots at a drop box at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020.  Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images

In their complaint filed in federal court, the Trump campaign, Republican National Committee and several GOP lawmakers claim that drop boxes “increased the potential for ballot fraud or tampering, thus infringing the right to vote.”

But the judge presiding over the dispute halted the lawsuit.

At least a dozen states provide drop boxes in some or all counties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and more are encouraging counties to install them, especially after the Postal Service warned 46 states last month that mail-in ballots may not be received in time to be counted.

In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam is asking the state legislature to approve a proposal permitting localities to use drop boxes to expand voter access amid the pandemic. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Tuesday the state is installing nearly 1,000 drop boxes, including at least 50 in Detroit alone, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city has ordered more than a dozen.

“As hard as the president is working to make it less appealing for people to use absentee balloting, we are doing everything we can to make it convenient for people because of the health reasons, because of COVID-19, because it’s the right thing to do,” Barrett said Tuesday.

Still, others oppose the use of drop boxes. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told a Senate panel last month he’s against drop boxes because of security concerns, and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has barred county boards of elections from “installing a drop box at any other location other than the board of elections.” Each county will therefore only have a single drop box.

But in other states, especially those that conduct their elections entirely by mail, voters are used to drop boxes, and many take advantage of them.

In Washington in the 2016 general election, 57% of the 3.4 million votes cast were placed in one of the state’s drop boxes, said Collingwood.

“The key to a successful drop-box voting is having a lot of them around,” he said. “Especially when you see other people using it. It’s a great alternative to the USPS for sure.”

Robert Brandon, the president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center, said Mr. Trump’s effort to discredit drop boxes is just the latest in a throw-everything-out-there approach.

“He’s been saying for a long time that voting is rife with fraud,” he told CBS News. “Whether it’s in-person or vote-by-mail, it’s not true. I think rather than sowing confusion and discouraging them from voting, we should be encouraging them to vote. Democracy works better when more people vote.”