From lawsuits by the Trump campaign to a decree from the governor of Texas — to the sudden appearance of boxes falsely labeled “official” in California — Republicans are intensifying efforts to eliminate the use of drop boxes to collect mail-in ballots, or using them in ways that undermine confidence in their security.
In recent months, a handful of states and local governments, most of them controlled by Democrats, have expanded the use of drop boxes as a safe alternative to voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic.
They have also promoted the boxes as an alternative to using the Postal Service after voters in the primaries complained of lengthy delays or lost ballots in the mail and the Postal Service underwent controversial reforms. In response, Republicans have turned their sights on drop boxes, attempting to limit their use through state orders or lawsuits.
The battle took a bizarre turn on Monday when officials with the California Republican Party acknowledged that they were behind the placement of about 50 unofficial drop boxes in Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange Counties, affixed with a deceptive white paper label identifying them as either an “Official Ballot Drop off Box” or a “Ballot Drop Box.”
The party contended its actions were legal, but California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, sent officials a cease-and-desist letter and announced on Tuesday he was giving them 48 hours to comply or face unspecified civil, or perhaps criminal, action.
“This is like nothing I have ever seen before,” Mr. Becerra said in a phone interview on Tuesday, contending that state Republicans were trying to stir up confusion around drop boxes. “You want people to have confidence in the system, to know that if you submit a ballot it will be counted. How can you do this at a time when people are losing faith in the process?”
In Texas, a less shadowy and more consequential conflict is playing out.
Late Monday, hours before early voting began in the state, a three-judge federal panel upheld an order by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, limiting counties to one drop box apiece, forcing high-density cities to shut down dozens of boxes they had hoped to use.
Harris County, the most populous county in Texas with more than 4.7 million residents, had already installed 12 ballot drop-off sites and was forced to reduce their locations to one: NRG Arena in Houston.
“They have no confidence in their ability to win without cheating, the whole game at this point is voter suppression, and sowing confusion,” said Lillie Schechter, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Harris County, which contains Houston.
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Chris Hollins, the county clerk for Harris County and a Democrat, has countered the governor’s order by adding several drive-through polling locations where voters can hand over their ballots to officials. The Republican Party of Texas filed a lawsuit late Monday to stop the practice, which it called “illegal voting.”
“We just want people to vote,” Ms. Schechter added. “When did that become a thing?”
In the 2016 campaign, one in six ballots cast were dropped in secure boxes — locked metal containers weighing as much as 600 pounds — with virtually no incidence of fraud.
Still, the rapid expansion of drop boxes by many states looking to stand up a vast mail-in ballot operation for the first time in 2020 has been met with a host of legal challenges.
Often, the debate is about access, as Republicans have sometimes argued that placing more drop boxes in heavily populated areas, which often lean Democratic, gives Democrats an unfair advantage, as fewer drop boxes are often put in sparsely populated areas.
The Trump campaign has filed lawsuits to restrict the use of the boxes in battleground states, to little effect. A federal judge in Pennsylvania on Saturday emphatically rejected the Trump campaign’s attempt to limit their use and other efforts to expand voter access, saying that Republicans had failed to even make a “speculative” case that such procedures would lead to fraud.
“I know of no evidence that drop boxes have lead to more or less fraud” than sending ballots through the mail, said Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who runs the university’s Election Data and Science Lab. “The fact that we just don’t have evidence of massive tampering based on either suggests that this is a nothingburger, as they say.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Trump wrote a message on Twitter packing multiple false claims about drop boxes into a single post, which Twitter later removed.
He did not always feel this way: Mr. Trump encouraged his supporters to use drop boxes in 2016, tweeting, “#VoteTrump at clerk’s offices & 185 ballot drop boxes in #ORPrimary!”
The use of drop boxes, like all matters in American elections, varies widely from state to state. Some states, like Tennessee, ban drop boxes altogether, and others place extreme limits on their use. Some leave it up to cities, while others rely on drop boxes for the majority of their ballots cast.
Not all Republicans are opposed to their use. In the spring, the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, installed 144 boxes around the state after elections officials warned that poll workers, in rural counties and elsewhere, were refusing to staff the June primaries out of fear of contracting the virus.
“We knew had to do something,” said Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state. “And if people were concerned about the post office, well, this was a way to completely alleviate those concerns.”
In Ohio, Frank LaRose, the Republican secretary of state, said that he personally wanted to expand drop boxes beyond one per county, but that state law was preventing him from doing so. Multiple judges in Ohio have delivered opinions saying Mr. LaRose is free to expand drop boxes and other locations, but he insists he still is forbidden by state law.
“People who want to vote in person are going to be stuck waiting in a line because of this asinine, asinine decision to have the only place where you use a drop box be also the only place they can vote in person,” said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
Mr. LaRose’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The use of drop boxes has been essential for many states that have traditionally voted by mail. In Colorado, roughly 75 percent of voters return their ballots through a drop box, and their use has not necessarily broken down along partisan lines.
“A higher percentage of Republican voters chose to use a mail ballot than Democrats, which I think is meaningful just because of the national rhetoric,” said Jena Griswold, the Colorado secretary of state and a Democrat. She has worked to expand the use of drop boxes, adding 130 boxes, for a total of 383, in Colorado.
The drop boxes all must meet a strict standard of security, she said.
“In terms of the security of the drop box, they’re bolted into the ground, we have guidance about adequate lighting,” Ms. Griswold said. “And then under law, they’re required to be filmed and all that film is stored for 25 months.”