| Columbus Dispatch
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s strict reading of state law, which he interprets as prohibiting additional ballot drop boxes, differs from common practice at Ohio’s county boards of elections.
The Hudson Republican is appealing Wednesday’s preliminary injunction by a Franklin County judge ordering him not to enforce his directive restricting counties to only one drop box ahead of the COVID-19-marred Nov. 3 presidential election.
While the Republican says he supports additional ballot drop boxes if they are legal, he does not believe they have been authorized by legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law.
“Secretary LaRose believes the law is clear about the very limited ways that absentee ballots may be returned to county boards of elections under Ohio law,” said spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan.
“Specifically, it states 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,’” she wrote.
However, workers other than the actual directors at Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections routinely accept ballots delivered in-person by voters to their offices, said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.
“Certainly directors in small counties with few employees would, from time to time, actually greet a voter at the counter and receive the ballot,” he said.
“But common practice dictated that if a voter got themselves to the board office, any employee could accept a ballot from that voter. Prior to the primary, a few boards did have a drop box at the board office and that was an acceptable practice as well.”
While individual county boards of elections have sought to install more than one drop box, Ockerman’s association has not adopted a position.
So does the counties’ actual practice undercut LaRose’s key argument? Here’s how his spokesman Jon Keeling responded:
“Past practice for years before 2020 was that voters would ’personally’ deliver their ballot by traveling to the board’s office, going inside the office, and handing it to whichever of ‘the director’s’ employees who was at the front counter. That is legal.
“There cannot be remote, unstaffed drop boxes all over a county because ’the director’ is not at those remote locations. ’The director’ and their staff ARE at the board’s office. ’The director’ would not be at those remote, unstaffed drop box locations. That’s why there can be drop boxes ONLY at the board’s office.”
All of that will be sorted out by the Columbus-based 10th District Court of Appeals, which will have a three-judge panel hear LaRose’s appeal of a preliminary injunction issued by Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Frye. The judge stayed his ruling pending an appellate decision.
In granting an injunction sought by the Ohio Democratic Party, Frye, a Democrat, ruled that LaRose’s Aug. 12 directive restricting counties to one ballot drop box was “arbitrary and unreasonable.”
Noting concerns over coronavirus accompanying in-person voting and anxiety about potential delays in mail delivery of absentee ballots, Frye found the law is “ambiguous” and does not support LaRose’s contention only one drop box is legally permitted.
Frye wrote that the section of election law does not define “deliver” and ruled that depositing ballots in multiple drop boxes constitutes lawful delivery to county elections directors.
Frye denounced LaRose’s argument that counties are afforded equal treatment with one drop box each as “nonsense,” writing it was “equivalent to arguing that every county needs only 100 (or some other arbitrary number) of voting machines, regardless of the population.”
During a digital voting panel hosted by the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus Foundation on Thursday, LaRose said he doesn’t want to create “chaos and confusion” with little time left before early voting begins on Oct. 6.
“I’d love to see more of them. If we had the legal authority to do it, we would have done it,” he said.
But the literal words of the statute, he said, prevent ballots from being returned by any other means other than personal delivery to the county elections director, and “you don’t want a secretary of state who operates outside the rule of law or just does what the heck he wants to do.”
“By the time you get on a bus or get in a car and go find a drop box somewhere, you’ve probably spent more than 55 cents at that point anyway. What we want to encourage people to do is follow the normal course of action and return their absentee ballot. If the courts or the legislative branch decides to clarify this issue, we obviously will follow that,” he said.
The A. Philip Randolph Institute of Ohio’s Andre Washington said he signed an affidavit that LaRose told him he would allow multiple drop boxes with a court opinion, and now the secretary is recanting after Frye’s ruling.
“I don’t know what circle he runs in but the circle I run in some people don’t have 55 cents for a stamp or to catch a bus. If he wants to be for all Ohioans he needs to look out for Ohioans who run in my circles,” he said during the panel.
The case sparked political fireworks with the Ohio Republican Party accusing Democrats and Frye of colluding in producing a ruling that “parroted his party’s talking points.”
The Ohio Democratic Party asked Frye to order the Republicans to show cause why they should not be held in indirect contempt for accusing the judge and the plaintiffs of unethical conduct. Republicans countered that they had removed the statement from the internet and deleted related tweets.
In a highly unusual statement, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, rebuked her party for questioning Frye’s conduct.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms both the statement released by the Ohio Republican Party,” she wrote late Wednesday afternoon.
“Every one of Ohio’s 722 judges, 800 magistrates, and numerous active-retired judges should be greatly concerned and voice their dismay at the irresponsible Republican Party allegation that politics controlled the judge’s decision. This is a blatant and unfounded attack on the independence of the Ohio judiciary.
“Contrary to the statements in this, disgraceful, deceitful piece, judges don’t decide cases based on partisanship.”
Dispatch Public Affairs Editor Darrel Rowland and reporter Rick Rouan contributed to this article.