A Franklin County court has ruled against Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, finding that county election boards are allowed to install more than one ballot drop box during the upcoming election.
Franklin County Court of Common Pleas judge Richard Frye found that LaRose had the legal authority to allow election boards to obtain more ballot drop boxes, in order to enhance access to absentee voting. The court said LaRose's directive restricting the number and location of drop boxes was "arbitrary and unreasonable," and lacked legal backing.
"Instead, every board of elections is legally permitted to consider enhancing safe and convenient delivery of absentee ballots, and may tailor ballot drop box locations or conceivably other secure options to the needs of their individual county," the opinion reads.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of State spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said the directive restricting ballot boxes remains in place, and their office will appeal the ruling.
"Importantly, while the judge issued a declaration as to the law regarding the return of absentee ballots and drop boxes, he did not rule on the Plaintiff’s request to enjoin the Secretary’s Directive," Sheehan said in an email. "Lacking that, today’s ruling didn’t change anything and the Secretary’s Directive remains in place."
"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,'" Sheehan continued. "Ohioans are fortunate that the judicial branch offers the opportunity to appeal a single trial judge’s opinion.”
Tuesday's ruling came in response to a lawsuit from the Ohio Democratic Party, which sued LaRose over his directive that prohibited counties from adding secure drop boxes anywhere but the election board. Democrats and voting rights groups, which have filed a second lawsuit against LaRose, have been pushing for additional ballot drop boxes as a way for voters to return absentee ballots without relying on the U.S. Postal Service, amid concerns about mail delays.
Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper called the ruling a win for voters who don't want to mail their ballots, but live far away from election boards. He said LaRose should move quickly to install more drop boxes.
"This is a box. This isn't sending a rocket to the moon," Pepper says. "This isn't complicated. In the primary, they set up drop boxes all over this state in a very short time-frame."
Democrats submitted as evidence a document from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission recommending that states maintain one secure ballot drop box for every 15,000-20,000 registered voters. Under LaRose's directive, there would have been just one drop box for 850,000 registered voters in Franklin County and 860,000 voters in Cuyahoga County. And in many counties, those drop boxes are not centrally located and are difficult to access without a car.
Those concerns were echoed by Frye in his ruling.
"At the hearing, the Secretary's counsel suggested that having just one drop box per county somehow assures 'equal treatment.' Unless Ohio rearranges its government structure so that every county ahs roughly the same population and comparable geographic access to a drop box and places for voting, there will inevitably be serious inconvenience caused many voters by such an arbitrary rule," Frye wrote.
While LaRose has expressed some support for adding more drop boxes, he's argued he may not have the legal authority to do so without the legislature's approval. He sought legal direction from the Ohio Attorney General about the matter, but in early August revoked that request, saying that changing course close to the election would cause confusion and invite lawsuits.
Frye's ruling seemed to criticize LaRose for issuing the directive without any public notice or input, including from any board of elections or political parties.
Early voting begins on October 6. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is October 31 at 12 p.m., and your ballot must be postmarked by November 2 to be counted. Absentee ballots can also be submitted at secure drop boxes anytime before November 3 at 7:30 p.m.