When we first unveiled our guide of how to vote in the 2020 election in every state, the most common question we received was, “What if I want to drop off my mail ballot in person?” Well, America, we heard you: The dashboard is now updated with information about whether you can and where to return your ballot.
The good news is almost every state allows you to drop off your mail ballot in person instead of mailing it; the only states where you can’t are Mississippi, Missouri1 and Tennessee. (A special category of absentee ballots in Oklahoma also can’t be delivered in person, but this applies to only a small fraction of voters.)
Typically, you can deliver your ballot to your local election office; at least 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) also accept mail ballots at polling places, but a lot of states explicitly don’t, so check our guide before trying that. But an increasingly common option is drop boxes in which voters can deposit their ballots. Going into this year, about 13 states regularly offered drop boxes in their elections, but with the expanded popularity of mail voting amid the pandemic, at least 38 states plus Washington, D.C., are offering them for the 2020 general election.
However, as with seemingly every other aspect of election administration this year, drop boxes have become a controversial proposal. To proponents, drop boxes are simply a more reliable delivery method given recent cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service that have slowed down mail service. Consider states that require ballots to be received by a certain date. Voters who put their ballots in the mail within a week of that deadline are really leaving it up to chance whether the ballot will arrive in time. By contrast, any ballot deposited in a drop box by the deadline is considered to have arrived on time, providing the voter with both peace of mind and an extra few days to fill out her ballot.
Drop boxes are more secure than your average blue postal box, too: Many states require them to be under video surveillance or manually staffed, and they are designed to be indestructible (check out this photo of a drop box that survived a head-on collision from an SUV). Still, opponents — including President Trump — argue that drop boxes do not sufficiently protect ballots from being tampered with, and they have opposed the boxes’ use in at least one swing state this year.
Over the summer, Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee sued Pennsylvania over its use of drop boxes, arguing that they were not properly monitored during the primary and thus were susceptible to fraud in the general election. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected their argument, and (as of now, anyway) drop boxes remain an option for Pennsylvania voters.
But even when both parties agree that drop boxes are safe, debates can still erupt over their proliferation. In August, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state directed county election officials to set up only one drop box in each county — despite the fact that some Ohio counties have more than 1 million residents. (By contrast, states that regularly conduct elections by mail have much more specific guidelines to alleviate overcrowding. For example, Colorado requires counties to offer at least one drop box per 30,000 registered voters, and Washington requires one drop box per 15,000 voters.) Furious Democrats challenged his directive in court, and on Friday a court ruled that the state can allow counties to set up more boxes (it is unclear, however, whether the state will do so). A similar fight is now unfolding in Texas, where the Republican governor decreed just last week that counties could have only one drop site each — ordering counties with more than one, including Democratic strongholds like Harris and Travis counties, to close those extra sites. Voting-rights groups quickly sued to overturn the order.
To voting-rights advocates, the convenience and ubiquity of drop boxes is one of their chief selling points. States like California make an effort to put drop boxes at centrally located places around town, such as libraries, civic buildings and assisted living facilities, making it easier for voters to submit their ballot in the normal course of their day. And unlike election offices, drop boxes are often open 24 hours a day.
When they’re accessible, drop boxes are a hugely popular option with voters, too. For example, in the 2016 general election, 57 percent of ballots in Washington (which automatically mails all voters a ballot) were cast via a drop box. And given just how many states have expanded their use of drop boxes during the pandemic, it could become a favored method of voting across much of the country this year. Just remember to check our guide to see if it’s available to you.