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Sometimes a little out-of-the-box thinking means using a literal box, possibly outside.
Maine officials are preparing for a November general election during a pandemic, and coming off a relatively smooth increase in the use of absentee voting in the July primary. But the ongoing failure of Congress and the Trump administration to deliver much-needed support to the U.S. Postal Service, and the president’s fact-challenged attack on voting by mail, add another layer of unnecessary complication.
“There’s a lot of nervousness around the country around the furor over Trump and the postal service,” Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said. “So we’re taking a long hard look at that and working with the governor’s office to see if there’s any remedial action.”
The Postal Service sent a letter to Dunlap in July recommending that voters using absentee ballots should send them 15 days before election day.
One of the potential actions being discussed, as mentioned by Gov. Janet Mills during an Aug 12 Maine Public radio interview, is installing drop boxes for absentee ballots in towns so that voters don’t have to interact with staff in person or rely on the mail at a time of delays and unnecessary politicization of the Postal Service.
“We are trying to simplify things, and make sure that everybody has access to voting — encouraging absentee voting, hopefully distributing more drop boxes for ballots, secure drop boxes in accessible locations,” Mills said on MainePublic. “I’ve been talking to the clerks, some of the clerks from around the state, and of course the staff of the secretary of state’s office, about how we can make sure that it’s easy to register with a proper proof of identification, easy to vote, cast your ballot, without any impediment.”
This idea of drop boxes, to be clear, is not a new one. The City of Bangor installed one earlier this summer. States like Washington and Oregon have used this type of voting infrastructure for years. And other states, like Connecticut and Michigan, ramped up their use during primaries this year. Mills said that while some drop boxes were distributed before Maine’s July primary, the state is having trouble procuring more given a backlog in production.
She also said there have been no outbreaks or cases of coronavirus associated with Maine’s July 14 primary.
“We want to replicate that in November, when there’s probably going to be 10 times the turnout,” Mills said.
Continuing to encourage absentee voting, providing personal protective and sanitizing equipment for poll workers, raising awareness about the need for young and healthy volunteers at the polls, and exploring the use of more drop boxes are all rightly part of that effort.
As voters and election officials alike adjust to significant increases in mail-in voting, more drop boxes can minimize the risk of virus transmission at the polls, minimize the variable of mail delivery time for absentee ballots, and help ensure that people’s ballots arrive to be counted before Maine’s deadline of 8 p.m. on election day. Given the national conversation about the Postal Service right now, and the president’s brazen and self-serving attacks on it, that is no small benefit.
As with any other election adjustment during the pandemic, voter safety must still go hand in hand with election security and a consideration of the costs involved. Federal guidance outlines how these boxes can be used in different ways — both indoors and outdoors, either staffed or unstaffed — with varying security measures and procedures based on the situation.
If the price is right and production is available, more secure absentee ballot boxes would be a good addition to the many ways the state has adapted to help Maine people vote safely and securely during a pandemic.