COLUMBUS — Franklin County Judge Richard Frye on Tuesday ruled county boards of elections may install multiple secure drop boxes to accept vote-by-mail ballots.
But a spokesperson for Secretary of State Frank LaRose said the ruling doesn't impact LaRose's ban on additional drop boxes, issued last month.
The Ohio Democratic Party late last month filed a lawsuit arguing that multiple dropboxes are permissible under state law, after LaRose directed counties to keep only one, which would be at their elections offices.
"The Secretary of State's directive banning multiple drop boxes is arbitrary and unreasonable, especially during a global pandemic when many more Ohioans want — and need — options for delivering their absentee ballots," Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper is quoted in a Tuesday afternoon release.
In Judge Frye's opinion, he noted LaRose stated in a related federal case he would support additional drop boxes if they were legal, and abide by a court ruling in favor of them — "the ball is in LaRose's court now," he wrote.
Judge Frye in his opinion cited unusual factors plaguing the 2020 vote — the COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of statute authorizing or prohibiting more than one drop box in counties and the U.S. Postal Service’s ongoing mail delays, which may affect mailed ballots. He also noted traffic congestion seen during the state’s primary election in March, caused by voters delivering their absentee ballots in person.
But Judge Frye did not rule on the Democratic Party’s motion to tie LaRose’s single drop box directive to the suit, according to secretary spokesperson Maggie Sheehan.
“Lacking that, [Tuesday’s] ruling didn’t change anything and the secretary’s directive remains in place,” she said. “The law is clear: ‘Absentee ballots must be delivered by mail or personally deliver[ed] to the director’ of their county board of elections and ‘in no other manner.’
“Ohioans are fortunate that the judicial branch offers the opportunity to appeal a single trial judge’s opinion.”
Judge Frye opined, however, that statute and the term “deliver” are ambiguous and that depositing ballots in any of multiple county drop boxes would satisfy delivery to the elections director.
LaRose, in statements to other media Tuesday, said he plans to appeal the opinion “at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Local board of elections directors who spoke to Mahoning Matters last month said additional drop boxes in the Nov. 3 election could be convenient for voters who live far from the elections offices but also had concerns about needs for additional security or manpower needed to maintain them.
The drop boxes must be monitored around the clock through Election Day and ballots must be collected at least once daily by a bipartisan group of election workers.
Mahoning County Board of Elections Director Joyce Kale-Pesta said she “would install 10 additional drop boxes” if allowed, Judge Frye wrote.
“If I could have them in different parts of the county, in outlying areas … it would make it so much easier on the voters,” she told Mahoning Matters.
Specifically, Kale-Pesta would be eyeing a dropbox site in Sebring, which is 30 miles outside the city, she said.
Mahoning elections board Chairman Mark Munroe, however, submitted testimony in the Franklin County case that he “would be personally” opposed to adding drop boxes, citing “security, cost and administrative burdens,” according to the opinion — “although he had acknowledged there had been ‘informal discussions about drop boxes’ before [LaRose’s] directive.”
Judge Frye, who sought his bench as a Democrat, also blocked an eleventh-hour move by Gov. Mike DeWine to push back Ohio’s March 17 primary date as Ohio’s coronavirus cases were beginning to surge.
Then-state health director Dr. Amy Acton issued a public health order closing poll locations a mere eight hours before they were set to open.