Ruling on Ohio ballot boxes contradicts GOP elections chief

By JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A federal judge in Cleveland on Tuesday broadly interpreted a new Ohio directive allowing ballot drop boxes at locations “outside” boards of elections as permitting them at multiple locations within a county, a finding that runs directly counter to the intention of the state elections chief.

It was not immediately clear what impact U.S. District Judge Dan Polster’s decision would have on the number of drop boxes available across the presidential battleground state ahead of the Nov. 3 election. The judge said the court “fervently hopes” the ruling ends the issue for now.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s latest order, issued Monday, was painted as a “clarification” to the earlier one-box-per-county order that repeatedly had been found unreasonable by the courts.

When pressed by an Associated Press reporter Monday, LaRose’s staff said that when he allowed drop boxes “outside a board of elections,” he meant located on board property — and specifically not at other off-site locations, such as libraries. Spokesperson Jon Keeling said the language mirrored a law passed in the spring that established one drop box per county amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Polster was so confident in his interpretation of the directive, however, that he dismissed as moot a complaint brought by the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a voting rights group, seeking additional drop boxes in Cuyahoga County, which is home to the Democratic Party bastion of Cleveland.

“In his latest directive, the Secretary authorized any board to deploy its staff to receive ballots at sites other than the board office,” Polster wrote. “This means that Cuyahoga County may implement its intended plan to receive ballots at six public libraries, and that any other board in Ohio that votes to do so may deploy its staff to receive ballots off-site.”

The state cannot appeal, because technically LaRose won the case and his directive stands as written.

Besides, spokesperson Maggie Sheehan said in a statement, from robust early voting and record-setting absentee ballot requests, “It’s clear that Ohioans are ready to move past lawsuits and start taking advantage of the elections system that has made Ohio a national leader in early voting and a model for election administration.”

The wording of LaRose’s new directive was potentially problematic virtually as soon as it was issued. An extra drop box that LaRose had approved in Cleveland was located outside and across the street from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, but not on its property.

Another election board, in Athens County, told the AP that, under his original order, it needed special permission to set up a second drop box at its back entrance, though it was inside the building.

Polster’s ruling came as absentee voting in the state was shaping up to be record-breaking. LaRose’s office said nearly 2.2 million absentee ballot applications have been received by Ohio’s 88 county election boards. That’s nearly twice the number of requests received at this same point in the 2016 election.

Curbside drop boxes have been sought around the country as an alternative to in-person voting complicated by the coronavirus, and mail-in voting has been a subject of concern, particularly after unfounded allegations by Republican President Donald Trump that it is unreliable as a voting method.