Rain, Fire and Car Crashes: How Ballot Boxes are Built to Withstand the World

Washington state-based Laserfab, Inc. has more than 700 ballot drop boxes in the field in 13 states, including this one, in Honolulu.

Washington state-based Laserfab, Inc. has more than 700 ballot drop boxes in the field in 13 states, including this one, in Honolulu. Laserfab, Inc.

 

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The boxes are developed to include a host of built-in security features to keep ballots safe.

A few years ago, students emerged from a field trip at the elections office in King County, Washington to an unexpected scene: their school bus had collided with a ballot drop box in the parking lot.

The drop box was fine. The bus, not so much.

“It’s a story we tell a lot,” said Halei Watkins, a spokeswoman for the agency. “A school bus tried to take out one of our drop boxes, and the box came away without a scratch.”

The inside of a ballot drop box in King County, Washington. (Courtesy of King County)

The boxes are heavy duty by design, made of steel and built to withstand car crashes, fires and deluges of wind and rain. That’s largely thanks to the input of election officials from Pierce County, Washington, who helped design the receptacles a decade ago, when the state began transitioning its elections primarily to mail-in voting

In 2010, workers from the county auditor’s office contacted Laserfab, Inc., a local metal fabrication company, to see if they’d be willing to manufacture a drop box that was sturdier and more secure than a typical mailbox, said Larry Olson, the company’s vice president.

“They were very interested that it be done locally,” he said. “They came to us and asked if we would be interested in doing it, and we worked with them on the initial designs.”

A decade later, Laserfab, Inc. remains one of just a handful of vendors that manufactures ballot boxes for local governments (others include Fort Knox and Recyclingbin.com). Today, the company’s steel boxes—manufactured under the brand name Vote Armor—weigh roughly 1,000 pounds and are bolted into cement with 8-inch steel bolts. They cost around $7,000 apiece, and while they have no specific stated lifespan, boxes that have been in the field since 2011 are still fully functional, Olson said. 

After debuting in Pierce County a decade ago, the boxes spread through the Pacific Northwest—first to other counties in Washington, then to Oregon, then on to California and Colorado. As of Monday, there were more than 700 in the field, installed in 64 counties across 13 states. More than 200 of those were ordered this year, as states prepared for an unprecedented influx of mail-in ballots during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Olson said.

“Almost a third of everything we’ve done in 10 years, we’ve done in the last five or six months,” he said. “We have three small plants, with anywhere from 15 to 25 people, and we had two of them working on our boxes. With all of the Covid stuff going on, we started hearing things in March, but I think people were waiting for government funding to come through before placing orders. We didn’t start going really heavy until about June, and from June through the first or second week of October, we were just kind of nonstop.”

A Vote Armor ballot drop box in Pierce County, Washington (Courtesy of Laserfab, Inc.)

The company’s basic box design includes multiple built-in security features to address concerns about the security of mail-in voting, Olson said. The ballot slot, for example, is just big enough to fit one or two envelopes, and connects to a “snorkel,” an angled chute that makes it difficult for liquids—including rain—to get in. The doors require keys to open and are manufactured at an angle, so they won’t close at all unless they’re properly locked, making it impossible for election workers to shut the box without correctly securing the locking mechanism.

“What I tell people is, these county election officials—this is their passion,” Olson said. “Every design feature of the boxes, from the very beginning, was designed in response to the question of, ‘How does this affect or enhance the integrity of the voting process?’ And that includes things that you may never think of. We’ve taken every step that’s come up to minimize the opportunities for tampering.”

Some counties—up to a third of Laserfab, Inc.’s customers, Olson said—opt to install extra security features, often required by state or local law. King County, for example, places a powder fire retardant inside the drop-off slot, which would deploy if someone took a match to their ballot before pushing it into the box (“We obviously didn’t go with water for that,” Watkins said).

In Denver, election workers tested the boxes by tossing a lit match through the ballot slot; there wasn’t enough air inside for the flame to do any damage, said Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute and Denver’s former elections director.

“The vendor had told us about all of these features, but we tested them all in-house,” said McReynolds, who helped set up Colorado's vote-by-mail system. “We never had anyone try to set anything on fire. We never had anyone try to dump water inside. We did have someone mark a box with spray paint, but that was the only thing that ever happened, in terms of tampering, that I’m aware of in Colorado, and they now have more than 300 boxes in the state.”

Colorado Governor Jared Polis speaks near a ballot drop off box during a news conference about the the state's efforts to protect the process of casting a vote in the upcoming general election Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Still, some vandals have had success breaching drop-off boxes. As many as 100 ballots were damaged when a ballot box in Baldwin Park, California was set on fire last month, and around three dozen ballots were ruined in a similar fire in Boston a week later. The California box was ruined, but Boston’s remained intact, open for ballot drops and under 24-hour surveillance,, according to the Boston Election Department. (It's unclear who manufactured either box.)

Things have been comparatively quiet in King County, Watkins said—with one exception on the first weekend the ballot boxes opened for drop-off.

“We had someone attempt to shove a piece of cardboard with feces of some kind through the slot,” she said. “Again, that slot is specifically designed to fit just a ballot or two, so nothing got into the dropbox—but there was a bit of a mess for our staff to clean up.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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