Sometime soon - very soon - Ohio's chief elections officer, Secretary of State Frank LaRose, is going to have to make a decision: Does he make it easier for people with absentee ballots to return them to their county boards of election, or does he make it harder?
The issue is simple: Can county boards of elections – all of which maintain secure drop boxes for people returning their absentee ballots - have more than one drop box scattered around the counties?
Actually, LaRose appears to believe that it is a decision that only the Ohio General Assembly can make – a General Assembly which is run by his fellow Republicans.
Democrats on boards of election around Ohio say that LaRose can give boards the green light himself, through a binding directive to the 88 county boards of elections.
It's an important question, because there is little doubt that absentee balloting in this November's election – a presidential election – is going to smash all previous records in Ohio for absentee balloting.
In Hamilton County, for example, the average presidential election since Ohio adopted "no excuse necessary" absentee voting, the method has been used by about 150,000 voters. County election officials say they are preparing for 400,000 this year.
And it is an important question because, during the hopelessly tangled up and delayed primary election Ohio held in April, there were massive traffic jams outside the boards of elections, especially in the large, urban counties. Which, as we know, tend to vote Democratic.
Hamilton County, for example, had a line of cars on the last day that started at the board offices on Smith Road in Norwood and stretched out onto the Norwood Lateral.
Imagine, if you will, how long that line will be in November, when there are three or four times as many voters trying to use the one drop box on Smith Road.
It is a disaster in the making.
That is why, at a Hamilton County Board of Elections meeting last week, Caleb Faux, a Democratic member of the board, offered a motion asking the staff to investigate the cost and feasibility of adding four more drop boxes.
You might think that Faux, a Democrat, might want to put them all in the heavily Democratic urban core, but you would be wrong. Most of the locations Faux suggested are in the suburbs.
He would put one in front of the County Administration Building Downtown, one at the Anderson Township Administration Building, one in Cheviot or Green Township and another in Forest Park or Springdale.
Faux and Democratic board chair Gwen McFarlin voted for the motion, as did Alex Triantafilou, a GOP board member and chair of the county Republican Party. Only Republican Chip Gerhardt voted no.
Triantafilou told WVXU he doesn't support the idea, but doesn't object to the board staff looking into it.
"I just don't think it is legal,'' Triantafilou said.
Triantafilou's "yes" vote had another effect – it meant it would not be a tie vote. A tie vote by the county board of elections is, under Ohio law, broken by the secretary of state. From the Republican point of view, there's no reason to force LaRose to make a decision right now.
On Monday, LaRose was busy writing a four-page letter to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, his fellow Republican, asking for a formal legal opinion on drop boxes.
LaRose had two questions:
- Are county boards of elections allowed to continue using their single, secure drop boxes for the November general election and beyond "when the only legal authorization for the installation of those single receptacles is found in uncodified temporary law related to the completion of the 2020 primary election" and not in permanent Ohio law?
- And, even if a county board of elections may continue to use a single drop box, does Ohio law permit the installation of additional drop boxes? "Or must the General Assembly pass legislation to authorize the installation and use of more than one secure receptacle in a county?"
That first question makes it sound like LaRose is looking for an excuse to do away with the drop boxes altogether.
After all, in an earlier part of the letter to Yost, he makes it clear that he prefers that voters pay the postage and mail in their ballots.
"It has been my preference that for absentee voting this fall we utilize thousands of secure receptacles all across the state of Ohio – i.e., the blue United States Postal Service mailboxes found in our neighborhoods, shopping centers, workplaces and government buildings," LaRose wrote.
Oh, you mean the Postal Service whose postmaster recently said may not make it because of costs and would have to slow down mail delivery?
Doesn't sound like a very dependable delivery system.
"The thing I find troubling in LaRose's letter is that he could end up getting an opinion that says drop boxes shouldn't be used at all,'' Faux said. "In Hamilton County, we have been using a drop box at the board for years, with no problem."
In the end, it is a pretty simple choice: either you want to make it easier to vote or harder. Pick one.