By: Samuel Petto
Visitors to California’s Staples Center will soon be greeted by more than lines of cheering fans for the latest Lakers game. For the first time in its history, the Staples Center will serve as a vote center in the upcoming November election. It will also be a designated vote by mail drop box location for those who prefer to drop off their mail-in ballot provided by the L.A. County Registrar’s office.
The absentee ballot drop box is an increasingly popular option for voters hoping to cast completed mail-in ballots without using the mail. While some states have successfully used ballot drop boxes for years, the coronavirus pandemic has expanded the practice throughout the United States as election officials express concern about the U.S. Postal Service’s capacity to deliver ballots on time. Although some states still prohibit the use of ballot drop boxes due to the risk of voter fraud, localities across California–from Los Angeles to Sacramento–are preparing for voters to cast ballots in record numbers via this method.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that only eight states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington—explicitly permit or require ballot drop boxes by statute. Many voters pay little attention to the state laws that dictate their design and use, including placement location, hours of availability, and collection times.
California offers one of the most extensive statutory frameworks for ballot drop boxes, which could be a model nationwide as other states consider adopting similar voting practices. The California Code enumerates dozens of requirements for the use of voting drop boxes. For example, voters this year will be able to cast their ballots via drop boxes that may be staffed or unstaffed, but which must be labeled an “Official Ballot Drop Box” with language about tampering, voter hotlines, postage, and other information. State elections officials will also be required to deploy boxes that are “constructed to withstand vandalism” with specified security features, and to ensure each box has a clearly identified ballot insertion slot and identifying number, and adaptations that meet accessibility requirements. Additionally, the California Code dictates requirements for how “designated ballot retrievers,” or those authorized to retrieve ballots from each drop site, will do so in terms of ballot collection, transportation, and contingency planning.
Before the pandemic, five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah—already held all-mail elections, which allows every active registered voter to receive a ballot in the mail automatically. However, several more states, including California, are embracing this practice and sending ballots to every voter this year. Localities across California found extensive guidance in the California Code, but this detail is often absent in other states, as shown by a National Conference of State Legislatures comparison.
As more states wrangle with the idea of whether (and how) to allow voters to cast ballots via drop boxes, California’s comprehensive statutory model may serve as an important framework for both procedure and process. From drop box design to ballot collection, transportation, and chain of custody procedures, the California Code outlines one of the most complete statutory models in the nation, which has been tried and tested before the upcoming election.