By ANTHONY IZAGUIRRE and CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY
ATLANTA (AP) — The expanded use of drop boxes for mailed ballots during the 2020 election did not lead to any widespread difficulties, according to an Associated Press survey of state election officials across the U.S. that revealed no cases of fraud, vandalism or theft that could have affected the results.
The findings from both Republican- and Democratic-controlled states run contrary to claims made by former President Donald Trump and his allies who have intensely criticized their use and falsely claimed they were a target for fraud.
Drop boxes are considered by many election officials to be safe and secure, and have been used to varying degrees by states across the political spectrum. Yet conspiracy theories and efforts by Republicans to eliminate or restrict them since the 2020 election persist. This month, the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that drop boxes are not allowed under state law and can no longer be widely used.
Drop boxes also are a focal point of the film “2,000 Mules,” which used a flawed analysis of cellphone location data and ballot drop box surveillance footage to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election.
In response to the legislation and conspiracy theories surrounding drop boxes, the AP sent a survey in May to the top elections office in each state seeking information about whether the boxes were tied to fraudulent votes or stolen ballots, or whether the boxes and the ballots they contained were damaged.
All but five states responded to the questions.
None of the election offices in states that allowed the use of drop boxes in 2020 reported any instances in which the boxes were connected to voter fraud or stolen ballots. Likewise, none reported incidents in which the boxes or ballots were damaged to the extent that election results would have been affected.
Several states said they do not allow the use of drop boxes while some had not allowed them before the 2020 election, when the coronavirus pandemic prompted wider use of mailed ballots. In states where they are used, secretaries of state or election commissioners may not be aware of every incident involving a drop box if it was not reported to their office by a county or other local jurisdiction.
Drop boxes have been a mainstay in states with extensive mail voting for years and had not raised any alarms. They were used widely in 2020 as election officials sought to provide alternative ways to cast ballots with the COVID-19 outbreak creating concerns about in-person voting and U.S. Postal Service delays.
Starting months before the 2020 presidential election, Trump and his allies have made a series of unfounded claims suggesting that drop boxes open the door to voter fraud. Republican state lawmakers, as part of their push to add new voting restrictions, have in turn placed rules around when and where the boxes could be accessed.
Arizona Assistant Secretary of State Allie Bones said drop boxes are “safe and secure” and might even be considered more secure than Postal Service mailboxes. She said bipartisan teams in the state collect ballots from the drop boxes and take them directly to secure election facilities, following so-called chain-of-custody protocols.
“Not to say that there’s anything wrong with USPS, and I think they do a great job as well, but the hysteria around ballot drop boxes I think is just a made-up thing to create doubt and fear,” Bones said.
Arizona has had robust mail-in voting for years that includes the use of drop boxes, and in the AP survey, the state reported no damage, stolen ballots or fraud associated with them in 2020. Nevertheless, Trump-aligned lawmakers in the state pushed for legislation that would ban drop boxes, but were stymied by Democrats and several Republicans who disagreed with the strategy.
Of the states responding to the survey, 15 indicated that drop boxes were in use before 2020 and 22 have no limits on how many can be used in this fall’s election.
Republican-led Florida and North Dakota and Democratic-led New York did not respond. Montana and Virginia did, but did not answer the survey questions related to the 2020 election.
Last year, five states added new restrictions to ballot drop boxes, according to research by the Voting Rights Lab. That included Georgia, where President Joe Biden won a narrow victory and where drop boxes were allowed under an emergency rule prompted by the pandemic.
Georgia Republicans say their changes have resulted in drop boxes being a permanent option for voters, requiring all counties to have at least one. But the legislation, which includes a formula of one box per 100,000 registered voters, means fewer will be available in the state’s most populous communities compared with 2020.
Along with incidents recorded in news reports, the AP found a handful of cases in 2020 in which drop boxes were damaged.
Officials in Washington state said there were instances when drop boxes were hit by vehicles, but that no ballot tampering had been reported. Massachusetts election officials said one box was damaged by arson in October 2020 but that most of the ballots inside were still legible enough for voters to be identified, notified and sent replacements.
A drop box was set on fire in Los Angeles County in 2020, but a local election official said the vast majority of the ballots that were damaged were able to be recovered and voters provided new ballots.
“The irony is they were put in place to respond to a problem with the post office and make sure people had a secure way of returning their ballots,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. “And so there’s no actual legitimate concern except for, again, potential external threats or people who have been radicalized through misinformation to try to tamper with drop boxes to make a point.”