How Are Absentee Ballots Counted in Ohio? When Will We Know Election Results?

absentee and early voting

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It is Election Day and voters are anxious to find out how long it will take to learn whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. The surge in absentee and early in-person voting made this election one for the record books even before a single vote had been tabulated.

Ohio is one of the battleground states that allows its election officials to begin processing mail-in votes weeks before Election Day. That strategy means unofficial results may be available sooner in the Buckeye State compared to other states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where vote processing did not begin until November 3, as NPR reported.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who previously served in the Ohio Senate, has been repeatedly reminding voters that the numbers available on Election Night are never final. In Ohio, the deadline to certify official results is November 28. LaRose explained on an ABC News podcast, “This idea that election night is sort of this grand reality TV show where everybody gets to go to bed on election night knowing who won and who lost is just a flawed construct. That’s not the way it works.”

How are absentee ballots handled and counted in Ohio leading up to Election Day? Heavy spoke with the director of the Athens County Board of Elections for an in-depth look at the process.

Here’s what you need to know:


Absentee Ballots Can be Processed After Voter Registration Ends & These Votes Are Counted First on Election Night

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Getty John Eddy, 52, collects absentee ballots from voters as they drive past the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland, Ohio on October 16, 2020.

The polls are open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Election Day in Ohio (although if people are still waiting in line at 7:30, the polling locations will remain open to allow everyone to vote). But as the Secretary of State’s office explains on its website, “absentee ballots are the first votes counted on Election Night.”

Absentee and early in-person ballots are tabulated first because, by Election Night, they have already been entered into the machines that count the votes. In Ohio, county boards of elections are permitted to begin processing mail-in ballots after October 5, which was the deadline to register to vote in the Buckeye State.

“Processing” involves physically opening the envelopes, scanning a barcode, verifying corresponding numbers and flattening the paper ballots to get them ready to be scanned through the equipment for counting. Athens County Board of Elections Director Debra Lee Quivey, a Republican, has been working at the Board of Elections since 1992. She told Heavy that at her office, processing the ballots is a bipartisan effort. Republican and Democratic staffers sit across from each other at a table and process ballots in pairs.

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Getty Early voters wait in line outside the Athens County Board of Elections Office on October 6, 2020 in Athens, Ohio.

Quivey explained that when her team is opening the envelopes, the staffer who looks at the voter’s name never sees who that person voted for. And likewise, the second staffer who looks at the ballot never sees who the ballot belonged to.

Quivey detailed the process: “Let’s say you and I are opening ballots together. You’re on one side and I’m on the other. You’re going to have the envelope and I’m not going to see the name. I’m going to reach over and pull the ballot out of the envelope. So I will see only the vote ballot. I’m going to read you the stub number. You’re going to look at the envelope and verify that the stub number matches. I’m going to tear the stub off, I put it back in your envelope, you turn the envelope over and I keep the ballot. You have not seen the voted ballot and I have not seen the name of the person whose ballot that it is.”

It’s worth noting that every county in Ohio sets its own timeline for processing its absentee ballots. Quivey said that in Athens County, her team began entering absentee ballots into the high-speed reader on October 29. Her team continued to process and enter absentee ballots as they came in.


The Voting Machines Are Not Connected to the Internet

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Getty Residents of Lake County participate in early voting on October 16, 2020 at the board of elections headquarters in Painesville, Ohio.

After the absentee ballots have been opened and prepped, they are scanned through a high-speed reader. Quivey explained that the equipment “reads the ballots and reads the votes [but] it holds the vote where we cannot see the totals. We can only see how many ballots we have processed. We cannot see any totals on any candidates.” The system is set up like that because county boards of elections are not allowed to tabulate any votes until Election Night.

In Athens County, the equipment that contains the vote totals is kept in a double-locked room. Quivey said that she, along with a Democrat on her staff, cannot enter the room unless they go in together. Nothing else is allowed to enter that room.

Quivey confidently explained that the equipment, which processes and tabulates the ballots, cannot be tampered with because it is not connected to the internet. “People talk about hacking. I will tell people, in Athens, you absolutely cannot hack into our equipment,” Quivey said. “It sits alone. We do not have the internet. There’s just no way to [hack into] it.”

This rule is standard across the state, as the Secretary of State details on its website:

No voting machine or component of a voting system may be connected to the internet. A voting system includes the total combination of mechanical, electromechanical, and electric equipment, including software or firmware required to program, control, and support the equipment that is used to: set up elections, define ballots cast, receive voting data from polling locations, count votes, report or display election results, and maintain and produce any audit trail information. The board’s voter registration server is not considered a voting machine or component of a voting system for purposes of this section.

Voting machines or components of a voting system may only be connected via a local computer network cable to the central tabulating system (a closed local network) for the purpose of creating or uploading memory cards, ballots definitions, precinct results, and other required tasks. Additionally, voting machines in a polling location may be connected to a closed local network.


Ohio Election Officials Will Show Voters How Many Absentee Ballots Have Yet to be Counted Online

In Ohio, absentee ballots that are returned via the postal service need to have been postmarked by November 2 in order to be counted. County boards of elections will continue to accept those absentee ballots until November 13.

Back in September, during a news conference that can be viewed here, Secretary of State Frank LaRose urged Ohioans not to focus too much on the preliminary, unofficial results that will be shared on Election Night. He has reiterated, again and again, that those numbers are not final and never have been:

The numbers will change between Election Night and the final certification. That’s not a sign of something nefarious happening. In fact, quite the contrary. It’s the sign that the system is working the way it’s supposed to. When we say that every voice matters and so every vote should count, that’s exactly what we mean. Whether it’s one of my former teammates that’s serving abroad and needs to cast his or her ballot absentee from a combat zone for example, or whether it’s one of our fellow Ohioans who simply waits until the very last minute and sends in their absentee ballot on November 2, we believe that every one of those deserves to be counted and they will be counted as long as they are legally cast but that means that there will be a difference between what’s reported on Election Night and what we report weeks later.

LaRose has also explained that Ohioans can track how many absentee and provisional ballots have yet to be counted. As he detailed in a video that was shared on social media, the Secretary of State’s website will share those numbers in real-time.

LaRose explained, “If your favorite candidate is ahead by a million votes and there’s only 200,000 outstanding absentee ballots, well then by definition you can tell that’s a conclusive result and you know who’s going to win. But if your favorite candidate is ahead by only 100,000 votes and there are yet 200,000 outstanding absentee ballots, then by definition, we have to finish receiving those ballots over the next 10 days before you can tell who’s going to win the race.”