The rapper Snoop Dogg may have popularized the phrase "drop it like it’s hot," but many election experts and county officials are hoping Kansas voters will follow a different motto with their ballots: drop it in the box.
A historic number of counties statewide are making use of secure receptacles, much like mailing a letter or package, which let voters swing by a central location and drop off their ballot, rather than mail it in.
Getting the drop boxes in Finney County had been tossed around as an idea from time to time, according to County Clerk Dori Munyan.
But even some of the state’s biggest counties did not make use of the practice in past elections, such as Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita. That meant smaller counties had even less of a reason to spring for a drop box, which can cost upwards of $6,000.
COVID-19 and a record number of voters casting their ballots by mail changed that.
"It was something we had considered from time to time" Munyan said, but she added that the pandemic "was definitely a factor" in pushing the western Kansas county to roll out the option for voters.
But the use of the boxes will vary widely from county to county.
Some less densely populated counties will not have a container at all, while Sedgwick will have 14 throughout the greater Wichita area.
Others have only purchased one box and will place it outside their election office, whereas some officials have made a point of spreading multiple satellite boxes out throughout the county.
And while local governments are providing the Secretary of State’s Office with information if and how they are being used, there is no indication that a central database will be created notifying voters where they can find a box near them.
"For a lot of counties the mail ballot drop is new," said Davis Hammet, president of the voter engagement group Loud Light. "A lot of them still haven’t published or even finalized where they are going to be. So I know a lot of people are like ’Oh where are they’ and it is kind of a confusing thing because some counties are still debating how many and where they are going to place them out."
Vote-by-mail prompts embrace of drop boxes
Munyan said Finney County’s lone box will be placed outside the county elections office in Garden City.
The container actually arrived ahead of the August primary election but the county elected to wait before rolling it out.
Still, Munyan said there was interest among voters, even then.
"We had people during the primary who said ’hey you have this ballot box, why is it locked?’" she said.
Part of this is due to a record number of voters who will vote by mail. Data from the Secretary of State’s Office as of last Friday showed that more voters have requested a mail ballot already in 2020 than in 2018 and 2016 combined.
Patrick Miller, an associate professor of political science, said that many of those voters have since become nervous about the prospect of mailing their ballots in due to concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service.
Some voters have even tried to bail on using their mail ballot, something election advocates have urged them not to do because it would mean a more complicated provisional balloting process in-person at the polls.
The drop boxes could be an antidote to those fears.
"If you build it, they will come, and voters will use it in larger numbers," Miller said.
And while conservatives in other states have criticized the boxes as a potential conduit for fraud, there is little evidence that is the case.
The boxes are outfitted with tamper-proof locks, one-way openings and even video monitoring to prevent malfeasance. The boxes are generally weatherproof and fireproof — one in Washington state even survived being hit by a car.
Other states have used them even before the pandemic. Roughly 75% of all ballots in Colorado are cast using the drop box system, for instance, and the percentage of voters in Washington who have used them has increased in recent years.
Both Gov. Laura Kelly and Republicans have supported the drop boxes in the state as an additional convenience for voters.
Kelly has been urging counties to make use of the system, including issuing public reminders that federal COVID-19 aid could be used to subsidize their purchase.
She has dismissed concerns about fraud, comparing them to arguments supporting the state’s voter ID law.
"It’s a talking point, but it really doesn’t have much basis in truth," she said.
Security concerns lead to restraint
Many counties say they aren’t taking any chances when it comes to securing the boxes, however.
Montgomery County, for instance, will mirror their counterparts in Finney County by only having one drop box outside the county courthouse in Independence.
That presents a problem for residents in the county’s largest city, Coffeyville, which is about 20 minutes away.
Charlotte Scott-Schmidt, the Montgomery County clerk, said that the box in Independence would have two security cameras on it around the clock.
Two observers from both parties, including one deputy sheriff, would collect ballots from voters during the day.
Those procedures could not be arranged in Coffeyville, she said.
"Right now I am concerned with the security of it and how I am going to maintain the security of it from 25 miles away," Smith-Schmidt said.
In the future, Smith-Schmidt said, the county will aim to deploy five other boxes in their possession if the things go well in 2020.
But some argue that strategy being used in Montgomery County and elsewhere is redundant. Voters can already bring their completed ballot to the county elections office rather than mailing it in.
A box outside only shortens the walk ever so slightly.
"You’re artificially limiting your drop box coverage" Miller said. "Here’s what I would compare it to: If you have two bathrooms in a house, why would you put them right next to each other? You’d space them out."
The short-time frame once the boxes were procured by the Secretary of State’s Office, Scott-Schmidt said, left little room for error.
"I don’t believe there was enough time," she said.
Are voters in populous counties left in the cold?
And while many smaller counties are using one or no boxes, even voters in more populous areas may struggle to find one.
In Wyandotte County, the state’s fourth-most populous county, only two drop boxes will be used.
And in Shawnee County, elections director Andrew Howell last month said that the county had gotten two drop boxes from the state. One of those would go outside the election office, with the fate of the other up in the air.
Meanwhile, Wabaunsee County, which has roughly 20 times fewer people than Shawnee or Wyandotte, will use four boxes, according to County Clerk Jennifer Savage.
One will be at the county courthouse in Alma, with three satellite locations throughout the county.
"They’re our most further outlying areas from the courthouse," Savage said of the locations picked.
This gap was an example of the larger counties sometimes lagging on issues of election administration, Miller said.
Still, Johnson and Douglas counties more thoroughly embraced the practice, with seven boxes in Johnson and Douglas, which has employed the practice in the past, will now have 10.
"I just have to wonder what decisions were being made in Shawnee and Wyandotte where they thought two were good enough," Miller said.
Voters seem ready to embrace boxes — if they can find info
And even if their county is planning on using a box, voters may not even know what their plan is unless they contact them directly.
While officials have submitted plans for their drop boxes to the state, there is no indication that the Secretary of State’s Office will make that information available publicly in a centralized place.
Hammet said Loud Light may attempt to pull the information together and make it accessible online, but there was a chance that might not happen before Election Day.
"It really does suck that there won’t be a centralized place so you’ll need to go to your county website," he said. "This usually isn’t the biggest deal because in the really big counties they have good website with good resources to do this. That gets harder in smaller counties."
None of the counties contacted for this story appear to have updated their websites with the location of their boxes, but all indicated they planned to do so.
Officials also planned to get the word out via social media and local news outlets ahead of Oct. 14, when mail ballots are distributed.
And once voters get wind of the idea, election officers expect the boxes to be popular.
"If you could provide another option for [voters], why not do that for them?" said Savage, the clerk in Wabaunsee County.
The story has been updated to clarify that Shawnee County has not yet made a decision on how to use its two drop boxes