TOLONO, Ill. (WCIA) — Voters in parts of rural Champaign County will have permanent drop boxes for mail-in ballots for the first time in 2022.

The 275-pound boxes made of reinforced steel will be in place ahead of the June primaries, according to Champaign County Clerk and Recorder Aaron Ammons who has been pushing for this for years.

“It allows people to return their ballots without having to pay for postage,” Ammons began.

However, the final steps in the installation process have been met with some contention between elected officials.

In total, the county plans to establish 13 boxes. Seven of those were in the ground ahead of the last election and five more are expected to go up in rural towns as soon as the weather warms up, but the sixth box — which the Champaign County Clerk expected to put in the Village of Tolono — was stalled unexpectedly by the village board.

“I thought we were ready to go, we had an agreement,” Ammons said. “And we said, yeah we just need to get you to sign the intergovernmental agreement.”

“I said, ‘Sure,'” Village of Tolono president Rob Murphy agreed. He said issues rose when that intergovernmental agreement was brought into the village office. The document placed the drop box in a busy spot that Muphy said was not agreed upon.

“I tried to make meetings with them, you know, ‘Come out and do a site visit and we’ll show you exactly where you can put it.’ I’ll even put an ‘X’ on the ground,” Murphy said.

“Kind of comparing that and how easy it is to vote, we figured there isn’t a real need for it.”

Ammons, on the other hand, says his office gauged rural voter interest with portable boxes back in 2020.

“So what we did was something called drive-in drops that we did several of in Mahomet, Tolono, Rantoul and St. Joe,” he explained.

Ammons says 18% of Tolono voters did so by mail in 2020. He shared that in an email to the village board in January.

It’s unclear how many took advantage of the drive-in drop box but Ammons said, “We saw that there was a real interest there.”

The village board unanimously tabled the vote for a permanent box in early December. It was voted down two weeks later.

“It would be easy to throw extra things in there, you know, you get our juvenile population, they throw something in there that shouldn’t be in there and it would end up destroying ballots,” Murphy added to the list of reasons not to go through with the agreement.

“We have had zero problems, not on campus, nowhere,” Ammons rebutted. “No vandalism, nobody trying to write on them, nobody trying to break in them, none of that.”

Ammons called Murphy’s concerns “Republican talking points,” referring to a nationwide push against drop boxes by members of the GOP.

However, politics can’t be completely ignored. Village board member Terrence Stuber is Ammons’ lone Republican challenger for the clerk and recorder seat this year.

Ammons says that’s unrelated and that he began drop box conversations with Tolono before he knew who was running against him.

The board was on board with the ballot boxes initially, Murphy said.

“We’re fine with it, and then all the confusion and the back and forth started,” he concluded.

“It creates access,” Ammons said. “Convenience for people to drop their stuff off when they’re out and about and you don’t have to pay anything more for it, so we thought it was a win-win for everybody.”

He says the about $20,000 covering the cost of the boxes is a one-time investment, paid for through a mix of federal, state and non-profit grant funding.

Ammons wasn’t sure where that final box will be placed, but he said it’s already paid for. The Village of Savoy initially had concerns like Tolono, Ammons added, but local leadership has since “come around.”

Rural ballot boxes are planned for Savoy, Mahomet, Rantoul and St. Joe.

Those looking to sign up for vote-by-mail can do so on the Champaign County clerk’s website.