BRUSSELS (AP) - The European Union's foreign policy chief has estimated that more than 150,000 Russian troops have already amassed for the biggest mili tary buildup ever near Ukraine's borders and that it will only take "a spark" to set off a confrontation. Josep Borrell also said Monday that the condition of imprisoned Russian opposi tion leader Alexei Navalny was "critical" and that the 27 nation group would hold the Kremlin accountable for his health and safety. Despite the developments, Borrell said after a virtual meeting of the EU foreign ministers that, "for the time being, there is no move in the field of more sanctions" to be imposed on Russia. He also said there wasn't a request for a synchronized EU diplomatic move of expul sions in the standoff between Czech Republic, an EU mem ber state, and Russia follow ing Prague's accusation that Moscow was involved in a 2014 ammunition depot explosion. More dangerous at this time, Borrell said, was the massing of Russian troops, including military field hos pitals, and "all kinds of war fare." "It is the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian bor ders ever. It's clear that it's a matter of concern when you deploy a lot of troops," Borrell said. "Well, a spark can jump here or there." "There's more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation - it's evident," he told reporters after the meeting. Borrell declined to say where he got the 150,000 Russian troop number from, but called it "my reference figure." It's bigger than the 110,000 estimate provided by Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran on Wednesday. More than 14,000 people have died in seven years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that erupted after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. The EU has steadfastly opposed the annexation but has been unable to do any thing about it. Efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled and violations of a shaky truce have become increasingly frequent in recent weeks across Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbas. Diplomats had expected there was little to no chance of immediate new sanctions on Moscow, but they now will seek to apply more pressure nevertheless through diplo macy. "Moscow must switch from provocation to coopera tion," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. And over the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron said that while dia logue with Russia is essen tial, "clear red lines" carrying possible sanctions must also be drawn with Moscow over Ukraine. "All in all, the relations with Russia, are not improv ing, but the contrary, the ten sion is increasing in different fronts," Borrell said. "We call on Russia to with draw their troops," Borrell said. ATLANTA (AP) - Atlanta area voters looking to return their ballots using a drop box in next year's gubernatorial election will have to do some searching. Just eight boxes will be spread across Fulton County's nearly 529 square miles - or about one for every 100,000 registered voters. That's down from the 38 drop boxes that were available to voters last fall. It's the result of a broad new law pushed by Georgia Republicans in response to former President Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen election. Georgia is one of several states controlled politically by Republicans that are seek ing additional restrictions on voting, citing security con cerns. A favorite target is bal lot drop boxes, which have been used for years in states with expansive mail voting and which millions of voters used last year as a way to avoid polling places during the pandemic. Democrats say the boxes are more secure than regular mailboxes, and their use was largely trouble free last fall. Even Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who signed the restrictive bill into law, posted a video on his Twitter account that showed him using a drop box to cast his ballot last year, flashing a thumbs up sign afterward. "They loved ballot drop boxes until Trump and the Republicans started losing," said state Rep. Erica Thomas, a Democrat from metro Atlanta. For election officials and voters across the country, drop boxes seemed like an ideal solution to two major problems in 2020: a coron avirus pandemic that raised fears about crowded polling places and reports of mail delays that threatened on time delivery of ballots. The boxes were targeted a few times by vandals, but few other problems were report ed across the country. Even so, Republicans say they want to ensure the boxes will be a secure way to cast a bal lot. "It's a continued narrative where you try to pit security against accessibility, and you have to choose one or the other," said Hillary Hall, a for mer county elections clerk in Colorado who now works with election officials across the country through the National Vote at Home Institute. "It's a false choice." Drop boxes have been used for years in states such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, where ballots are mailed to all registered voters ahead of every elec tion. Placement can vary wide ly. In some places, they're located inside public build ings, available only during office hours. Elsewhere, they are outside and accessible at any hour, typically with video surveillance or someone monitoring in person. "I'm just so glad we had that option," said Cynthia Vaughn, a retired financial manager from Atlanta who used a drop box at her local library in November and again for the state's January Senate runoff. She said slashing access to them will be especially hard on those who don't have ready access to a vehicle or public transit: "Driving extra miles to get somewhere to drop off a ballot doesn't adhere to the whole point that it should be easy and accommodating for everyone to vote." They were so popular in Florida last year that nearly 1.5 million voters used them, according to Florida Supervisors of Elections, a statewide group of local elec tion officials. Even so, a bill pending in the Florida Senate would limit their use to hours when in person early voting is offered. An earlier version would have eliminat ed them entirely, but that was revised after election super visors opposed it. The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley, acknowledged during a legislative hearing that he was not aware of any prob lems with drop boxes in Florida last year. Nevertheless, he said they introduced security gaps into the state's mail voting process that must be closed. "I don't think we should sit on our laurels or congrat ulate ourselves on a success ful election," Baxley said. "Our time is better spent learning lessons from prob lems in other states to make sure we are prepared for 2022 and beyond." No state reported any sig nificant problems with drop boxes last year. Democrats complained the bill would preclude vot ers from dropping off ballots in the days just before an election, when early voting is no longer available and vot ers are worried about relying on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their ballots on time. Republican lawmakers in other states, including Michigan and Wisconsin, also have proposed new limits, though the chances of many of them becoming law are slim because Democrats con trol the governor's offices. As part of a broad GOP led election overhaul in Iowa this year, lawmakers approved legislation to limit drop boxes in future elections to just one per county. Previously, state law did not say how many drop boxes counties could operate. Lawmakers in Texas, where the GOP is in full control, also are debating how voters can return ballots. Election experts say out door drop boxes are arguably more secure than a regular U.S. Postal Service mailbox sitting on a sidewalk, espe cially when video surveil lance is used. They are typi cally large, heavy and anchored to the ground. Democrats in Congress, as part of their proposal to establish national election standards, want to require states to offer drop boxes. Their goal is one for every 20,000 registered voters in most counties by the 2022 midterm elections. For coun ties with fewer than 20,000 registered voters, a minimum of one drop box would be required. In Georgia, drop boxes were permitted last year under an emergency rule prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. State Republicans have defended the new law as making drop boxes a per manent option for voters and requiring all counties to have at least one. But critics say the new limits mean there will be fewer drop boxes available in the state's most populous communities. "There weren't any issues with the drop boxes, and that's the point," said Georgia Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Fulton County. "It's defi nitely going to impact voters and their ability to access the ballot and cast their vote." In fast growing Cobb County north of Atlanta, offi cials had 16 drop boxes avail able in November but will be permitted about five under the new law. Janine Eveler, the county's elections direc tor, said 60% of all returned absentee ballots last fall came through a drop box. For the entire metro Atlanta area, Democrats esti mate the number of drop boxes will fall from 94 last year to no more than 23 for future elections based on the new formula of one drop box per 100,000 registered vot ers. Republican Sen. Brian Strickland, whose district sits south of Atlanta, said law makers were focused on making sure drop boxes were written into the law, available for future elections with strong security measures in place. "If the provision we have is not workable - this is the first time we have tried this - I'm sure you will see us go back and amend that to allow additional drop boxes if more are needed," he said.
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GOP Targets Ballot Drop Boxes In Georgia, Florida, Elsewhere
In this Oct. 26 photo, an election worker stamps a vote-by-mail ballot dropped off by a voter before placing it in an official ballot drop box before at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral, Fla. Ballot drop boxes were enormously popular during the 2020 election, with few problems report- ed. Yet they have drawn the attention of Republican lawmakers in key states who say security con- cerns warrant new restrictions.
Photo by As ociated Pres
EU Estimates 150,000 Russian Troops Near Ukraine's BordersPrevious Page