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An emergency order from the State Election Board permitting Georgia counties to use ballot drop boxes expires Friday, but a group of Democrats wants to extend the practice permanently.
State Sen. Sheikh Rahman, a Democrat representing Lawrenceville, introduced Senate Bill 26 last week, which would require counties to install a drop box at every early voting location.
“We need to look really closely at how convenient this was for the voters,” Rahman said. “And in terms of safety, we don’t know with this COVID situation, so we need to prepare for the next election, and the next election will come a lot sooner than we think.”
The boxes were first used in Georgia during the June 2020 primary. They were touted by Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also chair of the State Election Board, as a way to maintain social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic and to reduce strain on the already overburdened postal system.
The drop boxes are located on government property and accessible 24 hours a day. They are built to be tamper-proof and must be kept under video surveillance.
By the November election, most of Georgia’s 159 counties had at least one drop box, and some of the larger metro counties had dozens. The emergency order was extended once for the November election, and a second time for the January runoffs.
More than 1 million Georgia voters cast an absentee ballot in each round of voting this election cycle, many of them using the drop boxes, and absentee voters heavily favored Democratic candidates.
Along with almost every other aspect of the process, absentee voting drew a lot of attention from the mostly Republican critics of the results, and ballot drop boxes were no exception either.
In December, the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus issued a statement raising concerns about the security of the November election despite offering no proof of fraud. The letter included a list of legislative objectives Republicans would pursue to tighten election security and investigate alleged fraud.
“We will require photo identification for absentee voting for cause, and we will crack down on ballot harvesting by outlawing drop boxes,” the statement reads.
There was also a lawsuit filed by Georgia Republicans in Fulton County Superior Court ahead of the January runoffs that would have restricted drop box access to normal business hours, but it was dismissed by the judge.
The issue of ballot boxes came up again after the chair of Gwinnett’s election board called for them to be banned in a Republican Party meeting, leading to demands for her resignation.
Georgia’s secretary of state and county election officials have discounted all claims of widespread fraud, and all lawsuits challenging the validity of the election have been dismissed. The vote tally was confirmed by two recounts, and Cobb County had their absentee process vetted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Democrats who support the bill requiring a drop box at every early voting location said that it makes voting more accessible and can actually be safer than voting by mail.
“We need to protect that drop box option that has been introduced in Georgia and has been wildly successful. We don’t want to turn the clock back and go backwards,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, a Democrat representing Atlanta.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the drop boxes had to be purchased on short notice, and many counties did not have the funding. Georgia’s secretary of state’s office provided $3,000 grants to help counties pay for the costs of the boxes, and several companies made donations to purchase more.
Republican lawmakers in the Georgia House have introduced a bill that would prevent county election departments from accepting any private funding.
The sponsors of Senate Bill 26 said that Georgia needs to prioritize election funding to make sure voting is secure and accessible.
“We are in a nation that has not robustly invested in the infrastructure to have smooth elections, and that’s unfortunate, and counties are burdened oftentimes by requirements,” Orrock said. “So that’s why having access to private contributions to promote the public good of voting is a smart thing to do.”
“We are the only state in the country that spent over $100 million for the [voting] system. We can spend $100 million on the system, but can’t spend thousands on the boxes?” Rahman said.
Senate Republicans have not yet filed any bills that would restrict the use of ballot boxes, but there are still 31 days remaining in the legislative session.
The State Election Board meets next week and could consider new rule changes.