Ballot box drop offs
Officials clash over how many locations allowed
WARREN — An Ohio judge and the state’s top election official have clashed over how many absentee ballot drop boxes are allowed for each county.
Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose last month permitted each of Ohio’s 88 counties to put one absentee ballot drop box outside its respective board of elections office.
Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye last week, however, issued a directive saying Ohio has no legal basis to limit the number of drop boxes for each county. But the one-box per county directive stays in effect until the 10th District Court of Appeals rules on the matter.
That’s because Frye’s ruling derided LaRose’s directive but stopped short of requiring LaRose to change or rescind it.
The state immediately appealed, and the Ohio Republican Party followed suit, placing the fate of the order on hold.
The faceoff makes it unclear how many drop boxes will be available to Ohio voters just weeks before voting begins Oct. 6.
Access to ballot drop boxes has become an urgent matter nationally amid the coronavirus pandemic, questions about mail-in voting security and cutbacks at the post office.
Trumbull County Board of Elections staff Director Stephanie Penrose said Thursday that her office has no plans to add more drop boxes.
“Unless we get a directive (from LaRose), we are going with just one drop box,” Penrose said.
The issue has drawn in Ohio’s Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and members of the state Republican and Democratic party leadership
Shortly after Frye’s ruling, the state Republicans released a statement saying state Democrats had colluded with the judge over this ruling.
O’Connor fired off an emailed statement Wednesday: “I condemn in the strongest possible terms both the statement released by the Ohio Republican Party on Sept.15, 2020, and its unsigned authors. The statement disparages the integrity of Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye.”
O’Connor said every one of Ohio’s 722 judges, 800 magistrates and others should be “greatly concerned” about the “irresponsible allegation.”
“This is a blatant and unfounded attack on the independence of the Ohio judiciary,” she wrote.
“The only thing clear about this matter is that the law is not clear, and it remains to be seen what the ultimate interpretation of the statute will be.”
O’Connor, however, couldn’t say more about the judge’s decision because she acknowledged the issue “may very well find its way to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
“I will retain my independence and sit on the court to hear the matter if it does.”
A separate lawsuit has been filed in a Pennsylvania federal court challenging the single drop box rule under the U.S. Constitution.
The issue boils down to integrity and making sure each ballot cast is secure. Because of COVID-19, there likely will be more who vote absentee before Nov. 3 and there are only two ways to do it– via the mail or ballot dropoff box, which is located outside 2947 Youngstown Road SE in Warren and 345 Oak Hill Ave. in Youngstown.
Joyce Kale-Pesta, staff director for the Mahoning County Board of Elections, and county Democratic Party leader, said in Mahoning County it would be advantageous to have a box for southwestern, rural voters who live 45 minutes away from the board office.
“In Sebring, we would put it in a secure place like the police station,” Kale-Pesta said.
She said the drop-box system worked well in the primary, and she bought a second drop-off box that includes a drive-by slot, similar to the mailboxes used in the drive-through lane at post offices. She said she plans to replace the one used in the primary with this new one.
Kale-Pesta said the time crunch would make it hard to get many drop-off boxes placed around the county.
“But until this is resolved, we are abiding by the secretary’s (LaRose) order to have just one,” she said.
Mark Munroe, a GOP member of the Mahoning County elections board, said he has concerns about ballot security and is opposed to multiple drop boxes.
“Voting in Ohio has already gotten easier over the years,” Munroe said. “Back when I started working at the polls, you almost needed a doctor’s excuse to vote absentee.”
Munroe, who concedes that some counties may have need for remote bipartisan staffed drop locations, said there will be almost 200 hours available for voters to come to the boards of elections to cast their ballots.
“Multiple drop ballots have to be secured and monitored, and there’s more chances for vandalism and destroying ballots,” he said. “If we had ballot boxes scattered around the county, that would also be suspectible to ballot harvesting where people go around collecting ballots and dropping them in.”
Dave Betras, a lawyer, Democratic elections board member and the former party chairman, said he wants to make it easier for voters.
“We can put it (a drop-off box) in a library in Poland or other places and have them guarded,” Betras said. “Sometimes it gets so congested at the old Southside Hospital (Oakhill Renaissance Place) that people will have to wait to drop off ballots.”
Jeff Goodman, parliamentarian with the Trumbull County Democrats, said the issue has become political, with Republicans trying to making it inconvenient for people to vote.
“The more drop boxes you have, the easier it is to vote,” Goodman said. “For Republicans, it has become a good political strategy, like gerrymandering.”
Ron Massullo, deputy director of the Trumbull County Board of Elections and a Democrat, said the logistics of placing multi-drop boxes in Trumbull County would be taxing and time consuming with just 44 days before the election.
“Identifying proper placement, logistics of working out the details with the property owner / managers, assembling able-bodied bipartisan teams to monitor all the boxes and to schedule the emptying and transportation means in a safe and timely manner — all within 635 square miles of Trumbull County — can be taxing, to say the least,” Massullo said.
Massullo and Penrose, a Republican, are confident their staff can do the job to ensure Trumbull County votes are safe this election season.
“We are very confident that our electorate knows the board of elections location of more than 45 years and the multiple means of contacting this office,” they wrote in an email to the newspaper. “In Trumbull County, we take pride encouraging the public to feel safe to use our secure drop-box.”