By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Republicans hope to replace outside ballot drop boxes with “smart” boxes that don’t yet exist and will cost 500% more than the ones that Arizona counties already use, based on the unfounded claim that ballot-box stuffing helped steal the election from former President Trump.
While current drop boxes have safety features to prevent people from tampering with them, the boxes that Sen. Kelly Townsend wants used in Arizona would be loaded with technology. They would have to take pictures or video of depositors and generate receipts for up to seven early ballots per person. And they would have to be able to link every ballot inserted with the person who made the deposit.
Townsend, a Republican from Apache Junction, has been a vocal proponent of many debunked election conspiracy theories, and she is pushing Senate Bill 1571 to combat election fraud for which there is no evidence. There is no proof that drop boxes — mailbox-like boxes that offer voters a convenient way to cast their ballots — enable fraud, but Republicans and right-wing media in recent weeks have focused on videos of people dropping ballots into drop boxes, alleging that apparently normal behavior is suspicious and evidence of fraud.
Republicans in Arizona and in state legislatures across the nation are pushing hundreds of measures to add barriers to voting and make it easier for them to overturn results they don’t like, often under the guise of stopping the exceedingly rare election fraud that they falsely claim is the reason why Democrats won close races in 2018 and 2020.
Townsend’s bill has been approved by two Senate committees, most recently the Senate Appropriations Committee on Feb. 22, despite a lack of concrete information.
Jen Marson, executive director for the Arizona Association of Counties, estimates that there are 160 outside drop boxes statewide, and replacing them all with high-tech versions would have a hefty price tag. A Phoenix company that provides some election equipment and ballots for Arizona elections estimated the “smart” boxes that Townsend is proposing would cost $15,000 each.
“Their initial cost estimate is $15,000 per, so that puts you just under $2.4 million,” she said.
The drop boxes in Maricopa County cost $2,832 each when they were purchased new in 2017, Maricopa County Elections spokeswoman Megan Gilbertsonsaid.. The new boxes are still in the design stage, and Townsend said they might not be ready for a statewide launch by the next election. In that case, she said she would be open to seeing them as part of a pilot program in one county. She said the bill is actually an alternative to a complete ban on drop-boxes.
“Drop-boxes are not a right. I would prefer to get rid of them altogether. If we are going to continue to use them, they need to be secure. We don’t stick our money into an ATM machine and just drop (it) in – they have security measures,” she told the Appropriations Committee.
Implementing smart boxes may be difficult in rural areas, where it might not be possible to connect them to electrical power. Solar panels were suggested, but Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said that doesn’t account for inclement weather. Alston also pointed out that moving all drop-boxes inside, like Townsend proposed earlier — as a stop-gap until they can be banned or replaced — would hurt workers with schedules that don’t match the hours government offices are open.
“You can still mail them in,” Chairman David Gowan, a Republican, rebutted.
That doesn’t help voters who miss the mail-in deadline, or who are uncomfortable with trusting their ballots to the postal service, Marson said. The use of drop boxes wasn’t something that was forced on Arizonans, but the result of counties responding to voter requests. Removing them would go directly against what voters want, she said.
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said that wasn’t reason enough to keep drop-boxes in place, citing a preference for security over voter convenience. Legislative tolerance of drop-boxes in the face of alleged voter fraud — which has largely been found to be baseless — is at its limit.
“The government giveth and the government taketh away,” he said.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.