The Quiet Attack on Drop Boxes: Another Tactic to Make it Harder to Vote

by Liz Avore

February 23, 2021

As those in the voting rights movement are well aware, states across the country rushed to adjust their election systems to allow for safe voting during the 2020 pandemic, in part by expanding access to absentee ballots.

The Voting Rights Lab policy team tracked these adjustments in all 50 states, and summarized the landscape of critical changes in a 50-state chart.  

And many of these changes worked. We saw record turnout in the 2020 general election. Nearly half of all votes were cast by absentee ballot (up from 1 in 5 in the 2016 general election), with about a third of absentee voters casting their ballot that way for the first time.

But in the aftermath of the increased vote-by-mail usage in the 2020 election and the intentional disinformation surrounding it, states have introduced a cascade of voter suppression measures that specifically target vote by mail.

One policy that was adopted by states across the political spectrum in advance of the 2020 election that is now suddenly under attack is the availability of drop boxes,  secure containers where voters can drop off their completed absentee ballots.

Drop boxes were available in at least 32 states in the 2020 general election. As a result, more than 1 in 5 mail ballots was returned in a drop box—that’s over 14 million ballots.

When they are equitably spaced with respect to distance and population density, drop boxes increase voter turnout, particularly among women and voters of color. And while voters of color tend to vote by mail less than white voters, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that when they do vote by mail, they prefer to use drop boxes. Drop boxes are also essential in rural areas, where the distance between voters and the nearest polling places can be vast.

States increased access to drop boxes for this election in a variety of ways. Some states (such as New Jersey) passed legislation permanently requiring that counties provide drop boxes, while others (like Utah) took this step, but only for the 2020 election. Some states (like Georgia, Kentucky, and Michigan) provided funding for drop boxes or made them available to local jurisdictions but did not require them. And other states (like Florida, Colorado, and Washington) already required that counties provide a minimum number of drop boxes, even prior to 2020.

But now, as a part of the backlash against vote by mail, we are seeing legislative attacks on drop boxes that would limit the ability of counties to set them up, or even prohibit them entirely. 

For example, bills in Georgia and Wisconsin would prohibit stand alone drop boxes altogether. Pre-filed bills in Florida and legislation in Washington would remove or weaken the states’ drop box requirements. And Iowa legislation would limit the number of drop boxes counties can provide to just one. In Virginia, there was a failed attempt to prohibit ballot drop-off at any location outside the registrar’s office. 

Americans overwhelmingly support vote by mail. According to a study we and our partners conducted, 74% of respondents believe all voters should have the option of voting using an absentee ballot in future elections.

Secure drop boxes are a straightforward way to make voting more convenient and equitable, and they accomplished that in 2020. Efforts to make absentee voting more difficult by eliminating or restricting drop box use are voter suppression tactics plain and simple, and we’ll continue to track their developments so that we can fight back.