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Ohio elections chief again orders limit on ballot drop boxes

February 15, 2021 GMT
File-Moments after announcing the possible extension of Ohio voting until June 2, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose answers a reporter's question at a coronavirus news conference Saturday, March 14, 2020, at the Ohio Statehouse. Congress’ failure so far to pass another round of coronavirus aid leaves state and local officials on their own to deal with the soaring costs of holding a presidential election amid a deadly pandemic.  LaRose has said he would seek approval to pay postage for absentee ballot applications and returned ballots if he had more money. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)
File-Moments after announcing the possible extension of Ohio voting until June 2, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose answers a reporter's question at a coronavirus news conference Saturday, March 14, 2020, at the Ohio Statehouse. Congress’ failure so far to pass another round of coronavirus aid leaves state and local officials on their own to deal with the soaring costs of holding a presidential election amid a deadly pandemic. LaRose has said he would seek approval to pay postage for absentee ballot applications and returned ballots if he had more money. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)
File-Moments after announcing the possible extension of Ohio voting until June 2, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose answers a reporter's question at a coronavirus news conference Saturday, March 14, 2020, at the Ohio Statehouse. Congress’ failure so far to pass another round of coronavirus aid leaves state and local officials on their own to deal with the soaring costs of holding a presidential election amid a deadly pandemic. LaRose has said he would seek approval to pay postage for absentee ballot applications and returned ballots if he had more money. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has reissued a contentious order limiting the number of ballot drop boxes to one per county for the May 4 primary.

In a directive issued late Friday, the Republican elections chief set the limit in the context of a federal court opinion describing Ohio’s absentee voting options as “generous.”

“Even though Ohio law does not explicitly provide for the use of secure receptacles, commonly known as ‘drop boxes,’ for an absentee voter to return their ballot to the director,” he wrote, “this Directive, once again, provides for the continued use of secure receptacles outside of the boards of elections.”

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A virtually identical order LaRose put in place for the 2020 election drew fierce criticism from the Ohio Democratic Party, voting and civil rights groups, labor unions and several Ohio cities, leading to litigation. The state GOP, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Trump for America campaign sided with LaRose in court.

While courts allowed that order to stand, one describing Ohio’s restrictions as “reasonable and nondiscriminatory,” they rejected the argument LaRose had advanced publicly that he needed additional authority from the Legislature to expand drop boxes to multiple locations — because they’d initially established them on a one-time basis.

Still, spokesperson Maggie Sheehan said in a statement on the new order that LaRose is maintaining the status quo while “the newly seated General Assembly takes up the question of the time, manner and location of alternative means for voters to return absentee ballots other than the United States Postal Service.”

Curbside dropoff of ballots became a growing trend last year as election officials sought socially distanced voting alternatives amid the coronavirus pandemic and grappled with the potential for mail-in voting lags due to U.S. Postal Service cutbacks.

The issue was rearing its head again, after litigation quietly ended and LaRose’s earlier order expired in December.

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LaRose had been asked Feb. 2 to cast a tie-breaking vote on the drop box issue in Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati. The bipartisan election board there split 2-2 in a Jan. 19 vote on a motion to investigate the cost and feasibility, including security aspects, of installing multiple drop boxes around the county.

The directive’s release followed inquiries by The Associated Press about the status of LaRose’s decision on breaking that tie.

During the 2020 election, Cuyahoga County, home to populous and Democratic-leaning Cleveland, also wanted to expand drop boxes so that ballots could be collected at six public libraries around the county.