CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose on Monday swiftly moved to block the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections from implementing a plan that would have allowed voters to drop off their completed absentee ballots at six libraries throughout the county.
The County Board of Elections unanimously approved the plan Monday morning, saying they planned to send politically balanced teams of elections workers to libraries, starting Oct. 13, where voters also could pick up and drop off absentee ballot requests. The plan appeared to be an attempt to sidestep LaRose’s order for local boards of elections to only offer a single ballot drop-box per county. Elections officials said it would help reduce congestion in the postal system, and reduce traffic at the Board of Elections headquarters in downtown Cleveland.
But hours later, a top official in LaRose’s office ordered the county to not implement the plan. Mandi Grandjean, the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office’s top attorney, in an email to elections officials cited two ongoing lawsuits over LaRose’s ballot-box order.
“Whether we like it or not, this question is still being resolved in the courts,” said Maggie Sheehan, a spokeswoman for LaRose. “We’re concerned that the Cuyahoga board doing this before this issue is resolved in the courts would cause voter confusion. In light of that, we have ordered the board to cease implementation for now.”
Officials with the Cuyahoga Board of Elections, made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, said the extra ballot locations would help reduce the pressure on county elections workers by offering extra options to voters. The county has processed 221,000 absentee ballot requests, already exceeding the 208,657 total from the 2016 election.
Board Chairman Jeff Hastings, a Republican, in an interview said that Cuyahoga County would heed LaRose’s order.
“We just wanted to take the pressure off drop boxes for safety issues and make it a little easier for all Cuyahoga County residents to vote in a safe and secure manner,” he said.
Hastings said the county will have time to set it up, if the ongoing lawsuits are resolved by the end of the month or so.
“We’ll see where it goes. Maybe a creative judge or some of the creative parties in this litigation might find this as a reasonable alternative,” Hastings said.
Tony Perlatti, the director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said they thought their plan was consistent with the law.
“We definitely understand that we are at this point in time not allowed to have multiple permanent installed secure boxes, but that’s not what this is,” he said. “We thought this was something different.”
State law permits Ohioans to complete absentee ballots and “deliver them to the director” of their county boards of elections. State elections policy largely has interpreted that to either be by mail or by hand to a county board of elections. There has been legal disagreement on how much further that language could be interpreted, though.
LaRose, a Republican, last month ordered county boards of elections to offer a single, secure drop box for completed absentee ballots this November outside their offices. But he blocked counties from offering more, saying that could exceed his office’s legal authority and would invite lawsuits. He has said he personally supports offering more than one drop box per county, but doing so likely would require a law change.
LaRose’s decision prompted two lawsuits — one in Franklin County from the Ohio Democratic Party and another in federal court from voter-rights groups — seeking to force LaRose to permit more than one drop box per county.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, expected high mail-voting volumes, concerns about the U.S. Postal Service, expansion of mail voting by other U.S. states and rhetoric from President Donald Trump, voting procedures have become highly politicized, with ballot drop-boxes emerging as a major issue. The Trump campaign sued to block ballot drop-boxes in Pennsylvania in June, and has intervened in the Ohio cases, seeking to prevent Ohio counties from offering more than one.
Outside of the 2020 election, county-by-county elections procedures also have been an issue for years in Ohio, pitting elections officials in the state’s largest counties, who have called for flexibility for their more densely populated areas, against the state’s Republican elections officials who have called for uniformity.
Republicans at the state level have been suspicious that any efforts to promote voting access in urban areas would unfairly benefit Democrats.
But Hastings said Monday there’s no evidence that’s the case. In a press release, local board members compared offering ballot collection locations to the existing precedent of sending bipartisan teams of elections workers to help nursing home residents vote.
“Who it does benefit is it allows us to have a more transparent, accurate and fair election process by taking the pressure off one location where ballots can be dropped off,” he said.
Evan Machan, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party, declined to comment for this story.
Earlier Monday, Republican state legislators took another move to limit early voting, ruling against a request by LaRose to provide postage-paid envelopes to voters who request an absentee ballot.
The Cuyahoga County elections plan was to offer ballot drop-off locations in Cleveland and on the county’s east and west sides. The locations are:
Cuyahoga County Libraries:
- Fairview Park Branch – 21255 Lorain Road
- North Royalton Branch – 5071 Wallings Road
- South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch – 1876 S. Green Road
Cleveland Public Libraries:
- South Brooklyn Branch – 4303 Pearl Road
- Harvard-Lee Branch – 16918 Harvard Avenue
- Glenville Branch – 11900 St. Clair Avenue