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What prevents authorities from setting up a dropbox for mail-in ballots at local voting precincts (maybe something similar to testing where you do not need to exit your automobile)? I ask because in the context of COVID-19 and problems with the US mail system, it could make sense to setup collection centers.

I am not interested in the politics, however, I am interested in understanding if the dropbox laws (if any) renders the headlinesmoot.

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    What makes you think there is something that does prevent this? Here in Colorado we have been doing it for years. However, it does not solve all the problems that mail-in ballots are intended to address; for instance, some voters may not have a dropbox nearby, or may not have access to transportation to get to one. – Nate Eldredge Aug 14 '20 at 21:51
  • @NateEldredge In this, as in many things, Colorado is 1 or 2 hours behind the rest of the country, and years ahead. Colorado is one of a handful of states (all in the West) that require drop boxes. As you can see from the news articles I link to, drop boxes are not as welcome in the east and midwest. And they are getting less welcome. – Just a guy Aug 15 '20 at 20:22
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It depends on whether state law allows the use of drop boxes. Many states do -- in 2016, a little over 15% of ballots nationally were returned to drop boxes. Several states require drop boxes; some specify how many are required. (As far as I can tell, no state requires a drop box in every precinct.)

For example, Washington, which is a "vote by mail" state, allows voters to either mail ballots back, or return them to a drop box. The law requires the county to provide:

"a minimum of one ballot drop box per fifteen thousand registered voters in the county and

"a minimum of one ballot drop box in each city, town, and census-designated place in the county with a post office.*

In Washington general elections, between 40-50% of ballots are returned to drop boxes -- in 2016, 57% were.

Predictably, the use of drop boxes has been in the news recently.

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  • In the United Kingdom postal ballots can be returned to any polling station in the same constituency (so are returned to the same count centre) until the close of poll (which is always 10pm). Interestingly, they are handed to the polling clerk (in their double-sealed envelopes, with the ballot in the inner envelope and the declaration in the outer envelope) who puts them into an envelope and seals it at the close of poll. We don't use locked/sealed drop boxes for postal ballots, and it does appear to be a weak area. Most polling places will only get a few papers returned in this way. – Owain Aug 14 '20 at 21:20
  • @Owain Interesting. In Washington, there are nowhere near that many drop boxes, but most are open 24 hrs/day for several weeks before the election. – Just a guy Aug 14 '20 at 21:40
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What prevents it may be that it is not allowed or required. Recall that the essential constitutional issue in Bush v. Gore is the Equal Protection Clause:

Having once granted the right to vote on equal terms, Florida may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person's vote over that of another

Ohio has a set of rather specific laws governing absent voter ballots. ORC 3509.05 starts the specification of the ballot return process.

The elector shall mail the identification envelope to the director from whom it was received in the return envelope, postage prepaid, or the elector may personally deliver it to the director, or the spouse of the elector, the father, mother, father-in-law, mother-in-law, grandfather, grandmother, brother, or sister of the whole or half blood, or the son, daughter, adopting parent, adopted child, stepparent, stepchild, uncle, aunt, nephew, or niece of the elector may deliver it to the director. The return envelope shall be transmitted to the director in no other manner, except as provided in section 3509.08 of the Revised Code

The Sec'y of State is responsible with setting up regulations for the implementation of voting, this being the standing rules regarding absent voting. It says (1.04(2))

A voter may deliver the absentee ballot personally or may have a family member deliver the absentee ballot by the close of polls on Election Day at the office of the board of elections only. No one may return a voted absentee ballot to a precinct polling location.

HB 197 was passed at the end of March, which provided emergency exceptions to the ballot return law for the presidential primary (§32 starting 342 of the pdf), but this only applies to the March 17 election: by that emergency provision,

The board shall place a secure receptacle outside the office of the board for the return of ballots under this section.

In a directive of August 12, the Sec'y of state expanded the scope of the emergency law:

This directive requires the continuing use of that secure receptacle for the return of ballots and expands its use to include absentee ballot application forms. The drop box must be monitored 24/7, and at least one Republican and one Democratic member of the board or board staff must together retrieve the drop box’s contents at least once daily. Boards of elections must also retrieve the contents at noon on October 31, 2020 and 7:30 p.m. on November 3, 2020

Boards of elections must continue to use the drop box that was installed outside each board of elections pursuant to H.B. 197 for the 2020 Primary Election for the November 3, 2020 election cycle for the return of absentee ballot applications and ballots. Beginning September 1, 2020, boards of elections must begin to provide voters with 24/7 access to the drop box, which will of course, already be securely monitored. Boards of elections are prohibited from installing a drop box at any other location other than the board of elections.

There is a separate question whether he has the legal authority to override legislation, but that is up to someone with standing in Ohio to question. (He requested a formal legal opinion from the state AG, but none was rendered).

That does not mean that there is no other imaginable system. But, first, even getting one drop box per county is legally questionable without an act of the legislature; second, increasing the number of boxes without authority is even more questionable; third, leaving it up to the local boards to decide how many such drop boxes there shall be raises the threat of Equal Protection problems of Bush v. Gore. Washington has solved the problem with uniform laws requiring 1 box per 15K registered voters and 1 box per city, town, and census-designated place in the county with a post office, that is, the system is uniform.

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