Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose will allow counties to install more than one ballot drop box for the upcoming election – but only at the board of elections building, drawing more criticism from Democrats and voting rights groups.
Early voting in Ohio begins on Tuesday, October 6.
LaRose issued the updated directive on Monday, following a ruling from the 10th District Court of Appeals that found Ohio law allows but does not require the Secretary of State to permit more than one ballot drop box in each county.
In his instructions to election officials, LaRose maintained that "secure receptacles must be located only outside the board of elections," but added that counties can also allow bipartisan election officials to personally collect absentee ballots from voters outside the board of elections building.
The Ohio Democratic Party had filed one of two lawsuits arguing the Republican election leader was hampering voter access by restricting each county to just one ballot drop box each. While LaRose previously claimed he supported expanding drop boxes, he said that change would have to be made by the Ohio legislature.
On Friday, the 10th District Court of Appeals agreed with Democrats that state law does not specify the number nor location of drop boxes.
“We agree... that the statute neither prescribes nor prohibits ballot drop boxes at locations other than the boards of elections,” the decision said.
The appeals court did reverse an earlier injunction by a Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge, who would have required LaRose to immediately allow multiple drop boxes. The 10th District left that up to LaRose.
“We find that while the Secretary was not statutorily required to limit the location of drop boxes... he was also not statutorily required to allow additional drop boxes,” the appeals court decision said.
Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper said that the ruling paved the way for LaRose to add more drop boxes if he really wanted to.
"The obstacle Frank LaRose has always held out as the reason not to do it was the law didn't let him," Pepper says. "This decision cleared away that obstacle and said there's nothing in Ohio law that would keep you from adding drop boxes. So now it's time to do what you said you wanted to do all along."
Pepper called LaRose's updated directive "a joke."
“He is becoming a stooge at this point of a party that doesn’t want this to happen," Pepper says.
Common Cause Ohio called on LaRose to rescind the directive and allow election boards to install ballot drop boxes where they can best help their communities.
"Having two or more drop boxes at the same location does nothing to help voters who live a distance from the board of elections in their county," the group said in a statement. "It does nothing to help prevent congestion and traffic back ups at busy BOEs. It does nothing to help voters who are concerned with using the United States Postal Service to return ballot applications and ballots."
The Ohio Republican Party, which joined the case on LaRose's side, issued a statement praising LaRose for his directive.
LaRose has said in recent weeks that he doesn't want to add drop boxes now, this close to the election, claiming it would be costly and confusing. However, last week, some labor unions volunteered to make drop boxes at no cost to the state, and said they could have them ready in no time.
The 10th District's ruling could still be appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
A second, federal lawsuit over LaRose's original drop box directive, filed by the A. Philip Randolph Institute and a number of voting rights groups, is still ongoing. U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster delayed making a decision until the state court made its ruling.
Before the appellate court's decision, LaRose allowed Cuyahoga County to have an extra ballot drop off at a school across the street from the board of elections. The election board had originally drafted a plan to allow ballot drop off at six local libraries, arguing the sites were necessary to avoid traffic congestion on major streets near the board of elections headquarters.
Polster had also ordered LaRose to work with Cuyahoga County voting officials to solve the problem.
Voter registration for Ohio's general election ends on Monday, October 5 and early voting begins on Tuesday, October 6.