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Ballot Drop Boxes Gain Popularity As An Alternative To In-Person And Mail-In Voting

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many voters are worried about casting their ballots in person this November because of the pandemic. They are also worried that mail-in ballots could be misplaced or delayed. An alternative that is gaining popularity and also attracting controversy is drop boxes where voters can deposit their absentee ballots to be collected by election officials. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: A steady stream of voters in Detroit, Mich., last week approached a red, white and blue metal box right outside the city's main election office. The box looked a little like a high-tech trash can or recycling bin.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Have a great day.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

FESSLER: Instead, it was one of several hundred ballot drop boxes located across the state. More than a million Michigan voters decided to cast absentee ballots in the primary rather than go to the polls. But many, like Elizabeth Dandridge, didn't want to count on the post office to deliver those ballots.

ELIZABETH DANDRIDGE: I wanted to be sure that it was collected in a box. Sometimes the mail's delayed. I'm waiting on packages where people had sent me over two weeks ago, and they haven't come.

FESSLER: And it's a growing concern as the U.S. prepares for a flood of absentee and mail-in voting in November. Many election officials are encouraging voters to use drop boxes instead to make sure their ballots don't arrive too late to be counted. That's already happened to tens of thousands of ballots this year. Connecticut's using 200 new drop boxes in tomorrow's primary. Secretary of State Denise Merrill admits the state was somewhat overwhelmed by a surge in requests for mail-in ballots. And even a week ago, local election offices were still trying to fill those requests.

DENISE MERRILL: There's a lot of confusion just at the moment about when the ballots got mailed, to whom, when they're going to arrive. It's going to be very tight, and the ballot boxes play an increasingly important role in all this because, you know, you shave off two, three, four, maybe five days from when you mail a ballot.

FESSLER: But the boxes are controversial. A couple of Connecticut towns complained that having them outside available to voters 24/7 isn't safe even though many are protected with security cameras. The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have filed suit to block Pennsylvania from using such boxes in November, arguing they could increase the chances for fraud. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett recently told a Senate committee his state doesn't allow drop boxes for fear voters might be pressured on how to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRE HARGETT: If someone knows you've got an absentee ballot, they can say, hey; I'll be glad to take that for you and drop that off for you. They can ask you once you fill that ballot out, or they can not turn it in at all or you. We believe it's a great security measure to have someone returning their own ballot by the United States Postal Service.

FESSLER: Drop box supporters dismiss such concerns as completely unfounded. They note that drop boxes had been used in some states for decades without problems. Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told senators the boxes are an important and convenient option for voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTEN CLARKE: They complement the limited postal box offices that are available in communities and are just critical to providing access this season.

FESSLER: Access for whom isn't clear. Researchers have found that drop boxes can boost turnout overall, but there's no evidence - at least so far - that one party benefits more than the other. Still, Larry Olson of Laserfab, a company in Washington state that makes the boxes, says demand's definitely on the rise.

LARRY OLSON: I took a couple orders today.

FESSLER: And he's confident their boxes are far more secure than the average mailbox. He says there are multiple features to prevent tampering. The boxes are also made of steel and weigh about 600 pounds.

OLSON: And they're bolted to the ground, so it's not really something anybody can move easily.

FESSLER: In fact, he notes that an SUV plowed into one of them in Washington state last year. Both the box and contents survived.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASHMERE CAT SONG, "MIRROR MARU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.