ATLANTA (AP) – Atlanta area voters looking to drop their ballots back in next year’s gubernatorial election need to do some research.
Only eight boxes will be scattered across Fulton County’s nearly 529 square miles – or roughly one for every 100,000 registered voters. That’s less than the 38 drop boxes available to voters last fall. It is the result of a sweeping new law promoted by Republicans in Georgia in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election.
Georgia is one of several states politically controlled by Republicans, citing security concerns to seek additional restrictions on voting. A popular destination is ballot boxes, which have been used for years in expansive postal voting states and which millions of voters used in the past year to avoid polling stations during the pandemic.
Democrats say the mailboxes are more secure than regular mailboxes and that they were largely hassle-free to use last fall. Even Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican who signed the restrictive bill, posted a video on his Twitter account of using a Dropbox to vote last year and then showing a thumbs up sign.
“They loved ballot boxes until Trump and the Republicans started losing,” said Rep. Erica Thomas, a Metro Atlanta Democrat.
For election officials and voters across the country, dropboxing appeared to be an ideal solution to two main problems in 2020: a coronavirus pandemic that raised fears of overcrowded polling stations and reports of postal delays threatening the on-time delivery of ballots.
The boxes have been attacked by vandals a few times, but few other problems have been reported across the country. Even so, Republicans say they want to make sure the boxes are a safe way to cast a ballot.
“It’s a continuing narrative where you’re trying to put security versus accessibility, and you have to choose one or the other,” said Hillary Hall, a former Colorado poll worker who now works with election officials across the country across the national Co-ordination at home institute cooperates. “It’s a wrong choice.”
Dropboxing has been used for years in states like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, where ballots are sent out to all registered voters before each election.
The placement can vary widely. In some places they are in public buildings that are only available during office hours. Elsewhere, they are outside and reachable at all times, usually with video surveillance or personal surveillance.
“I’m just so glad we had that option,” said Cynthia Vaughn, a retired Atlanta finance manager who used a Dropbox in her local library in November and again for the Senate runoff in January.
She said restricting access to them will be especially difficult for those who don’t have direct access to a vehicle or public transportation: “Driving extra miles to get somewhere to put a ballot equates to this is not the point that it should be easy and accommodating for all to choose. “
They were so popular in Florida last year that they were used by nearly 1.5 million voters, according to Florida Supervisors of Elections, a statewide group of local election officials. Even so, a pending Florida Senate bill would limit its use to hours when an in-person early vote is offered. An earlier version would have gotten rid of them entirely, but that was revised after the election officers opposed it.
Bill sponsor Republican Senator Dennis Baxley admitted during a hearing that he was not aware of any dropbox issues in Florida over the past year. Even so, he said they introduced security flaws in the state’s mail voting process that need to be closed.
“I don’t think we should sit on our laurels or congratulate ourselves on a successful election,” said Baxley. “Our time is better spent learning lessons from problems in other states to ensure we are prepared for 2022 and beyond.”
No state has reported significant dropbox issues in the past year.
Democrats complained that the bill would prevent voters from voting in the days leading up to an election when early voting is impossible and voters are concerned about relying on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their ballots on time.
Republican lawmakers in other states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, have also proposed new borders, though the chances of many of them becoming law are slim because Democrats control the governor’s offices.
As part of a major GOP-led Iowa election overhaul earlier this year, lawmakers passed legislation to limit dropboxing to only one per county in future elections. Previously, state law did not specify how many Dropbox districts were allowed to operate. Lawmakers in Texas, where the GOP has full control, are also debating how voters can return ballots.
According to election experts, Dropboxes are arguably safer outdoors than regular U.S. Postal Service mailboxes on a sidewalk, especially when video surveillance is used. They’re usually large, heavy, and anchored to the ground.
As part of their proposal to set national electoral standards, Democrats in Congress want states to offer Dropboxing. Your goal is to have one of 20,000 registered voters in most counties by the 2022 midterm elections. Counties with fewer than 20,000 registered voters would require at least one Dropbox.
Dropboxing was allowed in Georgia last year due to an emergency rule triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. The state’s Republicans defended the new law by making Dropboxing a permanent option for voters and demanding at least one from all counties. However, critics say the new limits mean that there will be fewer dropboxes available in the state’s most populous communities.
“There weren’t any problems with the dropboxes, and that’s the point,” said Georgia Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Fulton County. “It will definitely have an impact on voters and their ability to access the ballot and cast their votes.”
In fast-growing Cobb County, north of Atlanta, officials had 16 dropboxes available to officials as of November, but about five will be allowed under the new law. Janine Eveler, the district’s polling officer, said 60% of all postal ballot papers returned last fall came through a Dropbox.
For the entire metropolitan area of Atlanta, Democrats estimate the number of Dropboxes will drop from 94 last year to no more than 23 for future elections, based on the new formula of one Dropbox per 100,000 registered voters.
Republican Senator Brian Strickland, whose district is south of Atlanta, said lawmakers are focused on ensuring the law includes dropboxes that are available for future elections with tight security measures.
“If the deployment we have doesn’t work – this is the first time we’ve tried this – you’ll find us going back and changing this to allow additional Dropboxes if more are needed,” he said.
___ Associate press writers David Eggert of Lansing, Michigan and Ryan J. Foley of Iowa City, Iowa contributed to this report.