In the presidential election four years ago, there were fewer free-standing ballot drop boxes, and they were uncontroversial. This year, as officials in many states expand use of the boxes amid a pandemic, they have become another flashpoint in the controversy over voting access.
Supporters of the expanded use of drop boxes say they make voting easier for people who are afraid to vote in person and fear their absentee ballots won't be tallied if they send them through the mail. Opponents say they are worried about ballot security, despite little evidence that drop boxes are any less secure than other voting methods. It's led to court cases, political back-and-forth and uncertainty for local election officials and voters.
Because many states lack specific rules about how many drop boxes are allowed per county, disputes over their numbers have sparked lawsuits in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all key states in the presidential election.
In Texas, a federal appeals court last week upheld the Republican governor's order limiting drop boxes to one per county, which Democrats see as voter suppression. California Republicans last week said they will continue to set up unofficial drop boxes for their supporters to use, despite state officials arguing the boxes are illegal.
Controversy over drop boxes stems from unease over the huge ramp-up in absentee voting during the pandemic and the unproven idea - fomented mostly by Republicans and President Donald Trump - that "if you have drop boxes it would be easier to do nefarious things," said Charles Stewart III, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor who has studied election mechanics extensively and found no evidence of drop box misuse.
Democrats have mostly focused on expanding voting access and have called for more drop boxes. Republicans have argued there could be security problems.
"It's gotten caught up in this puzzling politicization of balloting," Stewart said in a phone interview.
Trump tweeted in August that drop boxes are "a voter security disaster," and suggested they were easy to tamper with. However, in another tweet he waded into the California controversy over the unofficial boxes, encouraging his supporters to use them. "You mean only Democrats are allowed to do this? But haven't Dems been doing this for years? See you in court. Fight hard Republicans!"
Nationwide, most drop boxes look like oversized postal boxes or delivery service collection bins. They generally are bolted to the ground and monitored by cameras or located near government buildings where they can be watched. The boxes are emptied by election workers regularly - the frequency depends on how many ballots are pushed into them - but at least daily, and sometimes hourly. Some states require election monitors from both major parties to be present during the transfer of the ballots from the box to the election office.
Stewart rejected the idea that efforts to remove or diminish the number of drop boxes is a naked move to tamp down voting by certain constituencies - Democrats in a state run by Republicans, for example, as in Texas.