Who gets elected may not be known on election night

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Montgomery Co. Board of Elections Director Jan Kelly discusses how the board handles absentee ballots that need to be remade with board approval.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

The outcome of the Nov. 3 election might not be known for weeks in this contentious political year of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Ohio elections officials.

And Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has ordered boards of election to speed up the post-election counting and certification process “to account for the possibility of statewide recounts prior to the meeting of the Electoral College," according to his Oct. 16 directive.

The Dayton Daily News is investigating how Ohio’s elections systems work. This story examines what happens after the last ballot is cast on election night. Next Sunday, we will dig into how the Electoral College works and some efforts to change it.

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The Electoral College, which indirectly elects the president and vice president based on electors' state results, votes on Dec. 14.

County boards of election have a lot of work to do between now and then, following procedures in place for years to finish counting ballots, do recounts and verify accuracy through a post-election audit.

Election Day and night

Election night results have never been the final word.

All valid absentee ballots that arrive by Election Day can be opened and scanned in advance and tallied once the polls close. After Election Day any valid absentee ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 and arriving by Nov. 13 will be counted. Record-breaking requests for absentee ballots could mean an avalanche of paper ballots needing counted after Election Day.

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Provisional ballots are not counted until after Election Day. That’s because officials have to verify information provided by voters who are required to cast those provisional ballots when they lack required identification or questions exist about their registration.

These absentee ballots have been scanned into the system at the Montgomery County Board of Elections
These absentee ballots have been scanned into the system at the Montgomery County Board of Elections

Credit: Lynn Hulsey

Credit: Lynn Hulsey

This year for the first time the Ohio secretary of state’s website will indicate the total number of outstanding uncounted provisional ballots cast and the requested, but not received, absentee ballots.

The goal is to “underscore the fact that the election night results are never final as there are still outstanding absentee and provisional ballots that could impact the outcome of a race,” LaRose said in a news release.

What happens to provisional ballots?

Before the certification deadline, staff at county boards contact voters to give them a chance to fix problems on the identifying information included with those ballots. Board offices must be open each day for seven days after Election Day to allow voters a chance to correct deficiencies so their vote can be counted.

Once the validated identifying information is separated from the ballot, it is run through a scanner that records the vote.

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If the scanner has problems reading a provisional or absentee ballot, perhaps because the voter didn’t fully fill in the oval or they voted for too many people, it is set aside. The four-person, bipartisan board of elections has to rule on whether the ballot can be remade and counted, said Jan Kelly, director of the Montgomery County board.

“What you see in front of you are ballots that have been run through our high speed scanners but for some reason they were kicked out: either they were over votes, they had coffee stains on them or the timing marks on the ballots themselves were not readable," Kelly said, displaying bins of absentee ballots the scanner rejected.

Jan Kelly, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, talks about absentee ballot scanner.
Jan Kelly, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, talks about absentee ballot scanner.

Credit: Lynn Hulsey

Credit: Lynn Hulsey

If the board can determine voter intent, a new ballot is marked to match the original and that is scanned and counted.

“When a ballot is remade a Democrat and a Republican both sit at the table and remake that ballot with supervision of managers reviewing the final ballot remake,” Kelly said.

The original and remade ballots are kept at the board office, along with all other ballots, voter-verified paper records and electronic records of the vote for 22 months after a federal election.

Certifying the count

Under LaRose’s directive boards must complete the count and certify the results by Nov. 18, which is six days sooner than had originally been scheduled for this year.

Ohio Democratic legislators raised concerns about the expedited certification in a letter asking LaRose what he would do if boards could not get everything counted in time. LaRose’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on that.

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But Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials that represents the state’s 88 county boards, said board officials are telling him they can get it done.

“The change can pose challenges for boards who have high volumes of provisional ballots and late arriving absentees. We will need to adjust staffing levels to accommodate a more aggressive certification timeline,” Ockerman said.

“We won’t sacrifice accuracy for speed and thus we will make the necessary adjustments to meet the revised schedule.”

A similar date change occurred in 2016, he said, and the new date this year will not limit the time voters have to fix errors.

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“Remember even after we certify, we still have to leave time for recounts, post-election audits and potential legal challenges, and still seat our electors to the Electoral College,” Ockerman said.

He anticipates LaRose, who oversees all 88 county boards of election, will deploy additional resources to help boards having problems completing the count.

Final results — maybe

Once the results are certified, LaRose will announce Ohio’s final, official results. But even though they are called “final” they really are not yet final because changes can still occur due to recounts or the mandatory post-election audit.

Recounts are automatic for local races when the difference between votes cast for the winning and losing candidate or issue is equal to or less than one-half of one percent of the total votes cast in the race. For statewide races it is one-quarter of one percent. Recounts that don’t meet that threshold can be requested and paid for by a candidate.

Automatic recounts also occur when a tie exists between candidates. Tie votes on issues mean the issue failed, according to the Ohio Election Official Manual.

The post-election audit is done to verify results for a certain percentage of the vote in pre-selected races. Paper ballots are hand-counted and the electronic votes from touch screen machines are compared to the verified paper trail included on those machines.

Those audits grew out of a settlement the state reached in a federal lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Ohio after the 2004 presidential election was marred by long lines and other problems. Those audits are done after every General Election and after primary elections in even numbered years.

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Those audits typically find very few missed votes statewide, Ockerman said. But if the audit or the recount results in a vote change, the certified results are amended and reported to the secretary of state.

Even then the results might not be final if court challenges are filed, which Ockerman said are more likely if the presidential race is close.

In this presidential election year, Dec. 8 is the federal deadline to resolve all election disputes, recounts and court challenges. After the members of the Electoral College vote, those results are delivered to the U.S. Congress, which meets in joint session to count them on Jan. 6.

And then, finally, if Americans don’t already know who was elected president, they should find out, and that person will be inaugurated on Jan 20.

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