COLUMBUS, Ohio — County election boards are allowed to have more than one ballot drop box for the upcoming election, according to a ruling Tuesday by the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye ruled Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose's directive that prohibits counties from adding drop boxes was "arbitrary and unreasonable."
The judge ruled that the legal authority to permit boards of election to have more ballot drop boxes lies with LaRose, and the restriction that the secretary of state placed on county boards of elections was made without legal backing.
"Instead, every board of elections is legally permitted to consider enhancing safe and convenient delivery of absentee ballots, and may tailor ballot drop box locations or conceivably other secure options to the needs of their individual county," the opinion reads.
However, a statement from the Ohio Secretary of State's office said that the secretary's directive remains in place, because the judge did not rule on placing an injunction on LaRose's directive.
"Importantly, while the judge issued a declaration as to the law regarding the return of absentee ballots and drop boxes, he did not rule on the Plaintiff’s request to enjoin the Secretary’s Directive," the statement from spokesperson Maggie Sheehan said. "Lacking that, today’s ruling didn’t change anything and the Secretary’s Directive remains in place. The law is clear: absentee ballots must be delivered by mail or personally deliver[ed] to the director’ of their county board of elections and ‘in no other manner.' Ohioans are fortunate that the judicial branch offers the opportunity to appeal a single trial judge’s opinion.”
Frye’s decision was based on three “unusual factors” that came into play:
- The COVID-19 pandemic
- The absence of statutory law
- Delay of U.S. mail delivery
The judge's ruling also outlined how each county’s differing size and population could impact Ohio voters’ ability to travel to their one drop box.
“While the time of day, road network, traffic patterns, availability of public transportation and other features within each county are obvious factors that impact the accessibility of one or more ballot drop boxes, as a generalization it can be said that counties covering a relatively larger geographic area will require more travel time by voters than is needed in smaller counties. Traffic volume in counties with larger populations will also, generally, result in more road congestion and travel time than in less populated counties.”
The Ohio Democratic Party previously sued LaRose over the directive. Voting rights advocates are seeking additional secure ballot drop boxes so voters can more easily return absentee ballots without needing to depend on the United States Postal Service.
LAROSE PREVIOUS STATEMENTS
LaRose has indicated a measured amount of support for adding drop boxes, but has argued he might not have the ultimate legal authority to do so and previously asked the Ohio Attorney General's Office for legal direction. He later revoked that request because he said changing the way things were done so close to the election could open up the state for lawsuits and cause confusion among voters.
During a news conference Aug. 24, LaRose said that adding new boxes would be under the Ohio General Assembly's purview.
"Candidly, I asked the attorney general to weigh in on this because it was a question of law and whether the state law permitted that. What I decided to do, rather than to wait for continued legal analysis, was to move forward and say, 'We are not going to allow the addition of more drop boxes,'" he said.
At that Aug. 24 news conference, the secretary said he thinks expanding the boxes is a "fine idea for the future" and he hoped the legislature weighs in on it. He said with just a few months until Election Day, he didn't think it was time to change the way his office has operated and risk litigation.
REACTIONS TO DROP BOX RULING
Members of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners said they "were extremely pleased" with the decision of Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye to give local board of elections the flexibility to determine the number of ballot drop boxes for their counties.
“This is a victory for voting rights in Lucas County and the State of Ohio,” said Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the Lucas County Commissioners. “We have nearly 430,000 residents in Lucas County, including many who want the right to vote and will want to have the opportunity to deliver their ballot in person. We are excited that Lucas County residents will have more accessibility and flexibility to participate in the November election.”
The Lucas County commissioners and the city of Toledo last week jointly filed a motion asking to file an Amicus Brief in the lawsuit filed by the Ohio Democratic Party and Lewis Goldfarb against LaRose.
Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper weighed in on Twitter after the Franklin County Common Pleas Court ruling was released Tuesday.
"The order he wanted to see has now come. It's time for the Secretary of State to do what he has told the public and officials that he would do. No more delays. No more appeals. No more wasted time," Pepper wrote.
OHIO VOTING DEADLINES TO KNOW
- Voter registration deadline: Oct. 5
- In-person early voting person starts: Oct. 6
- Deadline to request absentee ballot: Oct. 31 by noon
- Latest date to postmark absentee ballot: Nov. 2
- Last day to submit absentee ballot by drop box: Nov. 3 by 7:30 p.m.