New law sets basic standards for absentee ballot drop boxes

A person puts a ballot in a box.
Voter Bo Carlock drops her ballot in the ballot box outside Minneapolis Elections & Voter Services in Minneapolis on Aug. 11, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic made absentee ballot drop boxes a popular option for voters. However, some lawmakers still want to see tighter security measures in place before 2022 elections.
Tom Baker for MPR News 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic made absentee ballot drop boxes a popular option for voters.  However, until now, there has been no uniform standard governing their use. 

“Minnesota law basically said there is such a thing as drop boxes and you can use them. Period,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. “There was no other meat on the bone.”

Now there is some meat, with minimum security and integrity standards for local election officials to follow if they choose use drop boxes. State statute now defines a drop box as a secure receptacle or container that is accessible 24 hours a day.  Drop boxes must be designed to prevent tampering, be protected from weather and emptied at least once per business day. 

There must also be continual video recording during the absentee voting period. 

Additionally, the new law says locations of drop boxes must be published and electioneering within 100 feet of a drop box is prohibited.

Local election officials will get some financial help to establish drop boxes. The legislation included $2 million for grants to assist in the implementation of the new security measures.

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Simon, a Democrat, said the change will prevent a patchwork approach and brings needed clarification. 

The state’s divided legislature disagreed on many election proposals this year. A Republican push for voter ID, and a DFL push to restore felon voting rights were among the proposals that fell by the wayside. But the ballot drop box issue emerged late in negotiations and gained bipartisan support as part of a larger state government budget bill.

Simon said the agreement was a big breakthrough. Drop boxes, he said, offer an important convenience for absentee voters.

“Picture a blue federal mailbox only for ballots,” said Simon. “Same principle. It’s something that’s secure or bolted down or even attached to a building, which enables the voter to drop the envelope into the receptacle without going into the building.” 

However, some say the guidelines don’t go far enough.

Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake is the chair of the Senate state government and elections committee. She wants even tighter security in place for the 2022 election.

“Though we have something, we certainly have something that is incomplete,” said Kiffmeyer. “I look forward to completing that next year and was very disappointed that we couldn’t do more, which we should have done this year in preparation for next year.”

Kiffmeyer, Simon and others plan to work more on the issue in the coming months. Those discussions could yield proposals for the next legislative session that begins in late January.

Kiffmeyer, a former secretary of state, is unconvinced that the absentee voting surge will continue after the pandemic. She believes that in-person voting is always the best option. 

“There’s no better day to cast your ballot than on Election Day in a polling place,” she said.  “There is no place more secure.”

DFL Rep. Michael Nelson of Brooklyn Park, the chair of the House state government and elections committee, said he plans to wait until next session to hold hearings on the issue. He said there is plenty of time before the August primary next year. Nelson said he wants to first get some feedback from local officials.

"The state doesn't own any election equipment. It's all owned by the counties and the cities,” said Nelson.  “They're the ones that run the elections. So, we want to hear from them what they need, if this will do for them what they need if they want to have drop boxes."