By Andy Sullivan and Jarrett Renshaw
(Reuters) - Welcome to the latest partisan flash point in the U.S. presidential election: the ballot drop box.
As U.S. election officials gird for a dramatic expansion of mail voting in the Nov. 3 election, Democrats across the country are promoting drop boxes as a convenient and reliable option for voters who don't want to entrust their ballots to the U.S. Postal Service.
President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, meanwhile, has sued to prevent their use in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state, alleging that the receptacles could enable voting fraud.
Republican officials in other states have prevented their use. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told a U.S. Senate committee in July that drop boxes could enable people to violate a state law against collecting ballots.
In Missouri, Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft decided not to distribute 80 drop boxes he had purchased because state law requires those ballots to be returned by mail.
"We didn't want to cause confusion with voters," spokeswoman Maura Browning said.
Drop boxes have taken on new urgency after cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service slowed mail delivery nationwide and Trump has repeatedly attacked the legitimacy of mail ballots. Polls show the Republican president trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in a race that some experts say could see half of all votes cast absentee.
Some say the drop box battle is a lot of fuss over a piece of civic furniture -- typically a heavily constructed metal box placed in a public location, often monitored by video.
In Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill is recommending that voters return their ballots via drop box rather than through the mail for the November election, after receiving reports that some ballots mailed a week before the state's Aug. 11 nominating contests arrived too late to be counted.
Three-quarters of ballots in that August primary were cast absentee, she said, up from roughly 4% in prior years. Merrill, a Democrat, said the state's 200 newly installed drop boxes had proven a safe and popular option.
"I do not understand why people think they're such a problem," Merrill said. "They're more secure than mailboxes."
Republicans in Pennsylvania don't share that sentiment. Trump won that competitive state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. Winning there again could prove pivotal in his quest to secure a second term in office.
The Trump campaign is suing to force the state to pull all drop boxes used in the June primary. It argues that people could drop off multiple ballots in boxes that are unstaffed, which is an illegal practice in Pennsylvania. State officials "have exponentially enhanced the threat that fraudulent or otherwise ineligible ballots will be cast and counted," the lawsuit states.
The Trump campaign said in a court filing on Saturday that it had complied with a judge's order to provide evidence of alleged fraud to the defendants. That evidence has not been made public. Trump lawyers did not respond to a request by Reuters to see it.
Bruce Marks, a former Republican state senator in Pennsylvania, said drop boxes do not provide a clear chain of custody for the ballots deposited inside.
"There's no one watching or tracking," he said.
Proponents say stuffing a ballot into a locked drop box is no different from dropping one into a Postal Service letter box. Pennsylvania Republicans oppose drop boxes because Democrats have had much more success in getting their voters to sign up for mail ballots this year, greater than a two-to-on margin, said Brendan Welch, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
"(Republicans) know the easier it is for everyday people to vote, the more likely it is that they will lose," Welch said. "Maybe they should spend their energy trying to match Pennsylvania Democrats’ organizing efforts in the Keystone State instead.”
Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has defended Pennsylvania's use of drop boxes, arguing they are legal and essential, particularly in the age of the coronavirus.
ONE BOX, 864,000 VOTERS
In neighboring Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said last week that he did not want to risk a similar lawsuit as he announced that he would authorize one drop box for each of the state's 88 counties. He said the Republican-controlled legislature had not given him the authority to provide more.
Democrats are pressing LaRose to revise his decision, pointing out that it leaves the 864,000 registered voters of Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, a Democratic stronghold, with the same number of drop boxes as the 8,400 registered voters of Republican Vinton County.
"You can't have a one-size-fits-all approach with our counties," said Kathleen Clyde, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign in Ohio. "One drop box doesn't cut it."
LaRose in the meantime is trying to secure prepaid postage for mail ballots, spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said, "effectively making every mailbox its own drop box."
Michigan, another battleground state, has added drop boxes this year.
Wisconsin's five largest cities, including Milwaukee, are setting up drop boxes as part of a secure-voting plan funded by the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit group.
In hotly contested Florida, Democrats in Miami-Dade County, the state's largest, are seeking to remove some procedural hurdles to make it easier for voters to use drop boxes.
Unlike other counties in the state, Miami-Dade voters must provide election officials with valid identification when dropping off a ballot at a drop box. Election workers also manually record a 14-digit number printed on the voter's envelope into a log.
The whole process can take up to three minutes, the Democratic Party said in a letter to local election officials seeking to allow voters to drop their ballots quickly without the processing requirements.
“Trump has sabotaged the post office deliberately and we have to find ways around that. We think making it easier to use a drop box, and avoid the post office, is part of the solution,” said Steve Simeonidis, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
The White House has said Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.
NOT TENSE EVERYWHERE
Security measures required for ballot drop boxes vary by state. In Montana, these receptacles must be staffed by at least two election officials, while in New Mexico they must be monitored by video, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Before 2020, eight states -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington -- had laws detailing how and where drop boxes could be used.
Returning ballots this way proved popular: In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, more than half of mail ballots were returned either to a drop box or to an election office in the 2016 presidential election, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey.
Drop boxes haven't been controversial in those states.
"Both parties use it at a really high rate, so a lot of those tensions don't exist here," said Murphy Bannerman of Election Protection Arizona, a nonpartisan voting-rights group.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington and Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia; Editing by Marla Dickerson)