by Ben Miller and Danielle Root
The novel coronavirus has upended U.S. elections. Some states have met the challenge by updating voting procedures and implementing affirmative policies that make voting safer and more convenient. For example, numerous states have expanded access to vote by mail, extended early voting periods to help in-person voters avoid long lines, and lengthened periods by which voted ballots must be received in order to be counted.
Unfortunately, a few states have continued to implement policies that restrict access to the ballot box. Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order limiting ballot drop off locations to just one per county. Texas is one of just a handful of states nationwide that is still requiring voters to provide a specific excuse in order to qualify for absentee ballots in the upcoming election.
For voters who are anxious over potential postal delays, dropping their ballot off in-person gives them peace of mind that their vote will be received for counting in a timely manner. Eliminating drop off sites also places voters belonging to at-risk groups at higher risk of virus-related complications in that it forces large numbers of people to congregate at a single location.
Restricting drop off site availability will make it harder for Texans to participate in the upcoming election and constitutes a form of voter suppression. People living in large counties are particularly disadvantaged. In Harris County — the country’s third most populous county and home to Houston — eleven of the county’s twelve drop off locations have now been eliminated. This leaves the county’s 2.4 million registered voters restricted to dropping ballots off at just one place.
Voters must now travel long distances to drop off their ballots. Prior to Abbott’s order, 87 percent of Harris County residents could access a drop site within 20 minutes’ drive; now, only 29 percent of residents can drop their ballots off within that timeframe. This is hugely problematic for voters who are elderly or disabled and those who may not have ready access to reliable transportation.
The below figures illustrate the impacts starkly. The first figure shows the placement of the twelve drop boxes prior to Abbott’s order (marked by gray envelopes) — areas in green could drive to one of the drop boxes within 20 minutes. Figure 2 shows the impact of reducing to one drop box (marked by the enlarged gray envelope), with a vastly shrunken green area denoting ready access to a drop box.
Ballot drop off locations have recently come under threat in other states, too. Like in Texas, efforts have been made in Pennsylvania and Ohio to restrict access to these important resources. Attacks on ballot drop sites are often couched in concerns over supposed voter fraud, a phenomenon that has repeatedly been shown to be virtually non-existent. Baseless claims of widespread fraud are nothing more than smokescreens used by voter suppressors looking to deny Americans the right to vote. Drop sites offer voters a secure, reliable, and convenient method for returning ballots. These sites have important security features to prevent tampering and may even be staffed by election workers, depending on the jurisdiction.
During a pandemic, elected officials should do everything in their power to make participating in the democratic process simpler and safer, not use the pandemic as an opportunity for voter suppression.
Author’s Note: The analysis was done by mapping locations of ballot drop locations using data from the Harris County Clerks website and HarrisVotes.com. Driving time was modeled using the Mapbox Isochrone API. Population estimates come from the 2018 American Community Survey for all individuals over the age of 18 and are reported at the census tract level, spatially distributed across each tract by the number of units associated with each residential parcel. The maps were produced using Mapbox Studio. The authors would like to thank Thomas Lee for his assistance with this analysis.