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Election Protection is WKSU’s community information initiative focused on access, policy and community resources around voting this November.

Ballot Drop Box Lawsuit Becoming Partisan Issue in Ohio

a photo of Summit county ballot drop box

Lawsuits over the number of ballot drop boxes are making their way through the courts in Ohio, with anger flaring on both sides of what has become an increasingly partisan issue.

Ohio’s Democratic Party wants the secretary of state to allow more than one per county, while Republicans are pushing to keep things as they are.

Kelly Woodward with WKSU’s Election Protection team takes a closer look at the latest fray – and what it means for the health of  democracy in Ohio.

“It kind of reminds one of what happens on a contested call of a football game," says John Green, the emeritus director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

According to Green, fighting over election procedures is nothing new.

John Green
John Green, emeritus director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron

“The partisans of both teams are absolutely sure that the ref is wrong or right and they have to go back and forth. The difference is we’re not having an argument after the play occurred. It’s before the game has started.”

Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, acknowledges there is a lot of gray when it comes to Ohio’s election law on drop boxes. He maintains his narrow interpretation allowing only one box per county is the right one -- that only the judiciary or legislature could change that. He says he’s also trying to avoid chaos and confusion this close to the election.

"To be clear, dropboxes are a great convenience, I’d love to see more of them if we had the legal authority to do it, we would have done it," says LaRose.

Democrats and voting rights advocates say LaRose has that legal authority but chooses to ignore it. 

“To me, this is very apolitical," says C. Ellen Connally, a retired judge and a Democrat. She is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to force an increase in the number of drop boxes.

C. Ellen Connally
C. Ellen Connally, retired judge, Democrat and a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Frank LaRose, to increase the number of drop boxes.

Connally says that many people are afraid to vote in person during the pandemic and many also doubt that the postal service will deliver their ballots on time. She fears that low-income voters, in particular, do not have reliable transportation to get to the only drop box in Ohio’s largest counties, including Cuyahoga.

“And this is what democracy is about, to have as many people as possible vote,” says Connally.

A Franklin County Common Pleas judge agreed, ruling last week in a separate lawsuit filed by the Ohio Democratic Party that the secretary of state’s limit is “arbitrary and unreasonable.”

Following that, the Republican Party posted an inflammatory statement accusing that judge, a Democrat, of colluding with his party. That statement, in turn, triggered a scathing rebuttal from Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

In writing, she called her party’s attack disgraceful and deceitful and added in an interview with Ohio Public Radio, "No matter how the judge ruled, to accuse them of partisanship is just at the heart of what I think are efforts to weaken the judiciary.”

Maureen O'connor
Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor

O’Connor’s rebuke is actually a positive sign that the separation of powers is working well in Ohio, according to the University of Akron’s John Green. “The job of a chief justice is to, in part, defend the integrity and independence of the judiciary and that’s what she was doing.”

The irony, Green says, is that there is no way of telling if expanding drop boxes would actually benefit or hurt either party. “You know, one of the common effects of changing political rules, whether it’s by law or by custom, is that you get unanticipated results.”

In the meantime, voters will have to wait to see if their voting options change. LaRose is appealing the Franklin County judge’s blocking of his “one drop box per county directive.” Early voting begins in about two weeks.