Review of election specific non-attended 24-7 drop boxes Harvie Branscomb 3/25/2021
(an election quality advocate from a mail ballot state with outdoor drop boxes- Colorado)
1. Most Colorado voters drop off their precious ballot in an unattended ballot drop box. They do not see how the election is processed and officials do not observe that they have voted. Many states have started or increased using drop boxes during the 2020 election season because of the pandemic.
Unattended drop boxes allow unaccountable casting of ballots that may not be eligible or may be eligible but not countable. Several mistakes or flaws in casting are introduced by non-attended drop boxes:
- An otherwise eligible ballot sheet dropped into the drop box lacks the enclosing envelope or attestation of eligibility. In this case it is either unlikely or illegal for the election officials to locate the voter to obtain a cure.
- An otherwise eligible ballot sheet dropped into the drop box may be enclosed in an envelope for the wrong election. In this case the voter identity is known, but statute will determine the disposition and possible cure.
- An otherwise eligible ballot in its ballot-return envelope is dropped into the wrong drop box. State law will determine if there is a cure such as moving the ballot packet to the appropriate jurisdiction. (A ballot packet includes the voted ballot sheets plus secrecy device plus envelope—one of which contains the signed attestation of eligibility.)
- An otherwise eligible ballot packet may be dropped without the appropriate signature. There is usually a remedy for this flaw via a cure process, but the necessity of a cure could be avoided with an attended or intelligent (“smart”) drop box.
- The drop box may fill and be unable to accept additional drops.
- The drop box may be breached or otherwise interfered with or emptied by unauthorized persons.
- The authorized pickup team may fail to remove all ballot packets or may selectively return only some of them because there is insufficient oversight or accounting for casting.
- Too many eligible ballots may be returned by one person when unaccountably dropped. There is little or no recourse or obstacle to this flaw and it is available by other methods as well.
For the above reasons, it is preferable to arrange physical bipartisan attention for all open drop boxes or to implement “smart” drop boxes for ballot return. Appropriate funds should be allocated to make one or the other solution available and to mandate implementation throughout states with substantial amounts of remote voting.
The “best practices” drop box described in sections A to E below would contain the technology of one or at most two smart phones and a solenoid to lock the drop box when higher integrity accessible ballot casting is available nearby. It is not a complex design challenge.
A. By “smart” drop boxes I mean that at a minimum they contain a communication device with GPS positioning to report status and location to the election office, a scanner or camera to pick up the barcode on the return envelope, and one or more cameras to record activity in the vicinity of the drop box. Also very valuable would be an information display that could contain text about how to cast a voted ballot and possibly a streamed video channel. A smart drop box could be attended by a virtually present team who are in fact in a remote location.
A minimal implementation would simply advise the state voter registration database and the county clerk or election director that the ballot packet associated with a voter has been cast. This single improvement initiates the chain of custody for a ballot and facilitates tracking of the ballot envelope through the eligibility check.
The flag that prevents another attempt by the voter to vote (“credit for voting”) should be raised when the envelope is approved to be counted after passing the eligibility check. Nevertheless, the voter can initially be advised by text or email that the ballot envelope has been cast even before it is received at the election central count facility if the drop box scans and detects the voter identity on the ballot envelope.
B. Another check that the scanner could do is “look” for a signature in the signature area. If no signature is present there, the smart drop box could signal to the voter that the signature is missing. If the signature is missing, the drop box can report to the person casting that the packet is not suitable to be cast. If the person persists to drop the packet, they can be informed that a cure process will be activated.
C. A well-designed smart drop box ought not divert a person casting a ballot away from an open, staffed polling place. If the drop box is located next to an open clerk’s office or other voter service and polling center, the voter could be instructed to take the envelope inside and have a staff member (who would check for the presence of a signature) receive it into a secure ballot box. This practice would promote healthy observation of both the person casting and the officials performing activities related to the election. And the chain of custody for the ballot is initiated.
D. In the best of all possible worlds, an attending staff member could check the voter’s ID and signature and then, if there is a match, allow the voter to drop the ballot sheet without enclosing identifying envelope into the ballot box designated for anonymous ballot sheets destined to be counted. This extra service performed in the voter’s presence would allow the cast ballot to escape the hazards of signature verification and a potentially imperfect cure process. In the long run, this is the approach that would add the most election integrity to the in-person return of mail ballots.
E. The expected number of ballot envelopes to be picked up from a drop box would be known by the clerk’s office. Thus integrity is increased in that no ballot envelopes can undetectably go missing between the time of casting into the drop box and the next time the ballot packet envelopes are scanned in the central count facility. Envelopes left in the drop box will be discovered as discrepancies in the chain of custody. In 2019, Mesa County CO missed counting over 400 ballots left in the drop box in front of their central count facility.
Below are recommendations if the best-practices drop box for returned remotely voted ballot packets described above isn’t practical or feasible yet.
F. If indoors, the drop box must be sealed with numbered, tamper-evident seals and an externally visible seal log signed by two workers who enter the seal number each time a seal is added or removed. The drop box may be made of cut-resistant fabric or hard material if the material cannot be opened or breached without leaving evidence. An indoor drop box must be within sight of election officials, and two officials should observe each deposit of a ballot packet into the drop box. Ideally the envelope will be barcode scanned by these officials at the time of deposit to start the chain of custody, after attending officials check the envelope for authenticity and for appropriate placement of signature.
G. Outdoor drop boxes must be made of welded steel and fastened to concrete foundations by tamper-resistant fastenings. The drop boxes shall generally be placed in strategic locations remote from the central election office. A 24/7 open drop box need not be located outside the door of a polling place or voting center. A basic drop box’s design will be selected to accommodate retrofitting of cameras and scanner as described above. The drop box’s opening shall be designed to accommodate a single ballot envelope at a time. The drop box shall bear insignia to explain its purpose and to indicate locations and times during which in-person voting and ballot replacement services are available. Specific instructions shall include the necessity of dropping a signed and sealed, privacy-protected envelope containing the ballot sheet or sheets.
If located near the door to a staffed polling location, the drop box shall indicate that the opening hours of the drop box are the closing hour of the polling location and that the drop box shall be closed while the polling location is open.
Either the drop box shall be equipped with a communication facility and internal cameras or be subject to streamed security video with positioning and resolution adequate to recognize faces.
Drop boxes that are not attended must be located on public property where there are personnel present 24 hours.
Reports must be made of all counts of items left in the box including those that are not able to be counted.
Addendum – comparative benefits offered by use of USPS to return ballot packets:
- USPS boxes are provided in a large and diverse set of locations
- USPS boxes are not election specific and therefore not subject to election interference
- USPS has a very effective investigation and prosecution team of inspectors who monitor the honesty of both the system and users of the system, as needed.
- USPS visits the home in many cases providing extreme level of customer service for return of ballot packets for persons who are alternately abled or otherwise unable to visit either a polling place or a drop box.
- USPS has tracking of mail and this can be used to provide early accounting of cast ballot packets before they are returned to the election facility – including the potential to give credit for casting upon first detection of the envelope.
- Only on election day or one day prior is the special purpose box likely to provide better timeliness of service if postmark or barcode tracking insulates the voter from delays past the deadline caused by slow delivery to the election facility.
I believe the drop box deserves more careful consideration and Colorado is the correct state to improve upon what it has already pioneered.
Harvie Branscomb 3/25/2021 harvie [at] electionquality.com