Mailbag: We might not know who won Ohio on Election Day. Here’s why.

By: - October 15, 2020 12:40 am

A ballot drop box is seen outside the Athens County Board of Elections. Photo by Tyler Buchanan, OCJ.

There is Supreme Court confirmation drama underway in Washington, D.C., but the necessity of reading the Ohio Capital Journal is a well-established super-precedent. It’s time for the Mailbag: 

Got a question about Ohio politics or the elections? Send them to [email protected] or tweet them to @tylerjoelb.

Do mail-in votes and in-person early votes both start to get counted at the same time? Is that at the beginning of Election Day?

– @AlaricCDZ

Answer: Yes, they are counted at the same time. This counting begins when polls close on Election Day at 7:30 p.m.

Absentee voting began on Oct. 6. That’s the day ballots were mailed out to citizens who requested them and the early voting centers opened up in each Ohio county. 

Between Oct. 6 and Election Day on Nov. 3, the 88 county boards of elections offices gather the ballots mailed back to them, returned to the dropbox or cast early in-person. A person’s eligibility is checked on-site when they vote in-person, so let’s focus on the mail and dropbox ballots. 

Elections officials take in those ballots and review them — does the signature match the voter’s registration file? Is the ballot filled out and dated properly?

If there are issues, the board will contact the voter to get the problem fixed. 

If the ballot is good to go, it gets approved to be counted. 

This distinction is important. Votes cannot actually be counted before the polls close on Election Day. But officials can, to put it simply, prepare the large batch of approved ballots to be reported as soon as 7:30 p.m. hits. 

This is why the Ohio Secretary of State’s website advertises absentee ballots as being “the first votes counted on Election Night.”

This voting sticker, designed by student Emily Legg, was chosen in May to be the new sticker in Ohio. Photo courtesy the Secretary of State’s Office.

Comparatively, ballots from the various polling places take a bit longer to get counted. As long as a voter is in line before 7:30 p.m., they are allowed to vote — no matter how many people are still waiting. 

Precinct officials have to wait for the last votes to be cast, then they have to follow a checklist of instructions on packing up equipment and closing the polling location. Back when I was reporting in Southeast Ohio, we always had to wait the longest for precincts way out in the boonies to make their way back to the board of elections office for counting.

Here is what we can expect on Nov. 3: As soon as the polls close, we will see boards of elections announce the wave of early vote results. From there, as is customary, precinct results will trickle in throughout the evening.

There is also a 7:30 p.m. deadline that day for ballots to be returned at the drop box, so the eligible ballots from that stack will be counted that evening as well.

Will we know which presidential candidate won Ohio that evening? Maybe, but probably not. Here is why.

The deadline to mail-in an absentee ballot is Nov. 2, the day before Election Day. Of course, those ballots mailed out right up to the deadline won’t necessarily make it to elections boards by the following evening. 

Ohio law allows for those ballots to arrive up to 10 days after Election Day. State law also allows voters to correct any issues with their ballot (such as a missing signature) up to seven days after Election Day. 

Secretary of State Frank LaRose explained the results reporting plan in a recent social media video:

“We report as quickly as we can, it may happen Tuesday night or Wednesday morning,” LaRose said. “We’re never going to sacrifice accuracy for speed. Getting accurate information is always the top priority.”

To sum up, we won’t know on Election Day:

  • The results of eligible absentee ballots arriving by mail between Nov. 4-13;
  • The results of ballots corrected by voters between Nov. 4-Nov. 10;
  • The results of provisional ballots, which are those cast by a voter whose eligibility is (for whatever reason) in question. Elections boards review those ballots individually and determine if each can be counted.

As LaRose said in the above video, results on Election Day are always considered to be “unofficial.” (Just ask the village council candidate I once covered who was up 21 votes on election night but eventually lost by seven.)

Helpfully, the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office plans to announce on Election Day the number of “outstanding” absentee ballots. 

If the differential between candidates on Election Day is smaller than the number of absentee ballots still outstanding, we will not know that day who won. Given how many Ohioans are casting absentee ballots amid the pandemic, this is a very possible scenario.

Boards of elections have until Nov. 24 to finish their “complete canvass” of the ballots. It may take until then to learn which presidential candidate won Ohio, or who the victors were in down-ballot races if they too are close. 

What’s the outlook for marijuana legalization in the Ohio Statehouse? Seems like an easy bipartisan win on the surface (especially given Michigan’s success). I thought Issue 3 would inspire better legalization efforts but it doesn’t seem that’s happened…

– Brett Samsen, on Twitter.

Answer: It appears Ohio legalization advocates will have to keep being patient.

Issue 3, readers might recall, was the ballot initiative from 2015 that sought to legalize marijuana in this state. The initiative was beset by accusations the measure would put in place a sort of pot monopoly — the plan stipulated that a group of wealthy investors would be the exclusive cultivators for the entire state. The ballot item got molly-whopped. 

Meanwhile, according to Business Insider, recreational cannabis is legal in 11 different states including Michigan. Ohio is one of many other states which has legalized medical marijuana. 

Stock photo of cannabis from Getty Images.

Medical marijuana here is only legal for use to treat one of 22 medical conditions as specified in state law.

There have been subsequent efforts in the Ohio Statehouse to expand the list of qualifying medical conditions:

  • House Bill 641 would add autism spectrum disorder to the list. This bill was introduced in May 2020 by state Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, and was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of eight other legislators. There has been no movement on the bill and it has not received a committee hearing.
  • House Bill 650 would add anxiety, opioid use disorder and autism spectrum disorder to the list. The bill was introduced in May 2020 by state Rep. Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland. It too has seen no movement and no committee hearing.

Upchurch and fellow Democratic state Rep. Sedrick Denson of Cincinnati also introduced in May 2020 a bill to legalize marijuana in the state. It would allow for cultivation of up to 12 marijuana plants, provided they are on your own property (or with approval from a property owner) and out of public view. The bill also would allow possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana or 10 grams of hashish. 

The bill has seen no movement or committee hearing this year. 

There are a handful of states which have marijuana legalization (recreational or medical) on the 2020 General Election ballot. 

Ohio could have been one of them. A proposed “Amendment to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol” sought to let Ohio voters decide on a plan to legalize marijuana possession and consumption for those 21 and up.

As I wrote in a previous Mailbag column, organizers of this and several other efforts failed to secure enough valid signatures to make it on the 2020 ballot. The pandemic is primarily to blame. We may see the marijuana constitutional amendment show up in a future election cycle.

Got a question about Ohio politics or the elections? Send them to [email protected] or tweet them to @tylerjoelb.

Reading material:

Special education top of mind as pandemic learning continues – Ohio’s special education teachers and students have had to “face their own challenges” in 2020, reporter Susan Tebben writes.

DeWine speaks up for popular parts of the ACA, but not the one providing health care to 500,000 low-income Ohioans – In speaking about the Affordable Care Act this week, Gov. Mike DeWine did not address the hundreds of thousands of low-income Ohioans who could lose their health care should the law be overturned, reporter Marty Schladen writes.

Amid an outbreak of political violence, Ohio prepares for an election – What laws are in place to ensure Ohio can conduct a violence- and intimidation-free election? Reporter Jake Zuckerman gives a comprehensive, important look on the subject.

Forecasters predict few close congressional races in Ohio in 2020 – Just how pernicious is gerrymandering in modern Ohio politics? I recently wrote that most congressional races this year have a 99% likelihood of the incumbent being re-elected, analysts have found. 

Battle for the Ballot Series – States Newsroom, the national network of nonprofit news outlets (of which the Ohio Capital Journal is an affiliate), reported this series of stories providing “a sweeping picture of voter access and barriers to the ballot.”



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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.