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Federal Ruling On Ballot Drop Boxes Contradicts Ohio Secretary Of State

In this April 28, 2020 file photo, Marcia McCoy drops her ballot into a box outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland, Ohio.
Tony Dejak
Associated Press
In this April 28, 2020 file photo, Marcia McCoy drops her ballot into a box outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland, Ohio.

A federal judge in Cleveland has broadly interpreted a new directive from Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose allowing ballot drop boxes at locations “outside” boards of elections, saying that means they're permitted at multiple locations within a county. That runs directly counter to LaRose's stated intention, though.

LaRose on Monday issued an updated directive that says counties can add more than one ballot drop box, but only "outside the board of elections," meaning on board property. He also said counties can allow bipartisan election officials to collect ballots outside the election board building.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Polster seemed to interpret LaRose's directive differently, writing that "it is now settled law that off-site drop boxes are neither prohibited nor compelled in Ohio."

"In his latest Directive, the Secretary authorized any board to deploy its staff to receive ballots at sites other than the board office," Polster writes. "This means that the Cuyahoga County board may implement its intended plan to receive ballots at six public libraries, and that any other board in Ohio that votes to do so may deploy its staff to receive ballots off-site."

Last week, LaRose prohibited Cuyahoga County from collecting ballots at libraries, although he did let the county accept completed ballots at a second location up the street from the board of elections building.

Despite that, Polster found that "there is no evidence before the Court that Secretary LaRose is currently prohibiting any board from doing something it voted to do to protect the voting rights of its citizens with respect to off-site drop boxes or off-site delivery of ballots."

LaRose previously expressed support for expanding ballot drop boxes, but said he believed only the Ohio legislature has that power. Despite multiple courts ruling in favor of multiple drop boxes, LaRose has maintained that it's too close to the election to add them. 

Polster dismissed a federal lawsuit brought against LaRose by voting rights groups seeking to block his directive, saying "there is no problem that requires an injunction."

Still, it remains unclear whether county boards can offer ballot drop boxes away from the board of elections. Polster said the order speaks for itself.

WOSU asked the Ohio Secretary of State's Office if it would appeal or try to clarify Tuesday's order, and if it would allow election officials to collect absentee ballots from locations other than the board of elections.

“Ohioans showed up for today’s start of early voting in impressive numbers," spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said in a statement. "Combined with a record number of absentee ballot requests, it’s clear that Ohioans are ready to move past lawsuits and start taking advantage of the elections system that has made Ohio a national leader in early voting and a model for election administration.”