As states explore new ways to enhance vote-by-mail access during the pandemic, one resource has become an important piece of an Oregon county’s expansion of drop boxes—libraries. Multnomah County, Oregon, took libraries’ civic participation to the next level.
It’s common for counties to use libraries as in-person early voting locations or ballot drop-off sites, often placing secure drop boxes in library parking lots. The American Libraries Association lists at least 312 libraries across the country being used either as secure drop-off sites for ballots or as polling locations. But during the coronavirus pandemic, Multnomah County took it a step further: They allowed book drops at all nineteen of its libraries to be used as official drop boxes. And, they certified all library staffers who enter the buildings and potentially handle those ballots as official election workers.
Multnomah County’s Elections Division has always had a strong partnership with the library system. The county is rare in that its library system is countywide, making it easier to coordinate efforts with the county’s election officials, said Tim Scott, director of Multnomah County Elections. (Many library systems are designed for citywide use, not a whole county). In previous elections, the county provided ballot drop boxes at its libraries with a secure, locked tote at the circulation desk. But election administrators had to reimagine how to provide the same level of access when the pandemic hit, since patrons could no longer enter the libraries. Those buildings weren’t even staffed during the primary election in May.
“Every library has a twenty-four-hour library book drop, which goes into the building—which, of course, is secure,” Scott said. “It seemed like a natural and obvious extension of our partnership to do this.”
Those library book drops proved essential in helping voters easily turn in their ballots during Oregon’s May primary. Multnomah County totaled 279,738 mail-in ballots. Of those, 36,438 ballots were dropped off at the book drops—thirteen percent of voters dropped off their envelopes at a library.
Here’s how the process works. When a voter deposits a ballot into the outdoor library return slot, it falls into a secure area within the building. A library staffer, who’s also a certified election administrator, then handles that ballot and separates it out from library materials into a secure tote. An election official then comes to pick up the tote that contains the ballots.
Utilizing library book drops as ballot drop boxes is a simple solution to the need for more ballot drop boxes if states want to improve vote-by-mail access. Sightline recommended that local election officials provide at least one ballot drop box for every 10,000 registered voters. According to the American Library Association, there are about 9,000 public libraries, 98,460 school libraries and 3,000 academic libraries in the U.S. If every local election official had done what Multnomah County did and transformed every public library book return chute into a secure ballot drop site, that would have created thousands more places for voters to securely submit their ballot, without driving across the county or waiting in line for hours.
Drop boxes have been an essential part of successful vote-by-mail systems; voters can drop off their ballots at a secure box and can trust that their ballots will make their way into the hands of local clerks safely and on time.
Oregon led the way for voting by mail. The state first tested a vote-by-mail system locally in 1981 and conducted its first all mail-in presidential election in 2000, two decades before the current pandemic and raging legal battles over expansions of vote-by-mail in battleground states. (Washington began all mail-in elections statewide in 2011. In Colorado, it was in 2013.) Drop boxes have been an essential part of successful vote-by-mail systems; voters can just drop by a convenient location in between errands and drop off their ballots at a secure box, and can trust that their ballots will make their way into the hands of local clerks safely and on time. And, drop boxes take the guesswork out of wondering how long it will take the United States Postal Service to deliver the ballot. If it’s in the box by the time polls close, it meets the deadline.
Shawn Cunningham, spokesperson for the Multnomah County Library, said library staffers all took an oath to assure the public that they were committed to the “highest levels of integrity” that were expected from election officials.
“It’s a role that library spaces and library workers have played for a long time,” said Cunningham. “It’s a good way to support that critical democratic process and to add more value to the community we serve.”
Sightline is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and does not support, endorse, or oppose any candidate or political party.
Hayat Norimine, research contributor, is a freelance writer who grew up in Washington on the border of Idaho. She previously covered city halls and politics for The Dallas Morning News, Seattle Met magazine, and The Daily News in Longview, Washington. She has an MA in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Washington. For Sightline, she researches and writes about democracy reform and elections issues and reports on fossil fuel proposals along the Thin Green Line.
Thank you to Nisha Balaram for editing.
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