Outstanding ballots — including some that might still be sitting in the post office — mean that it will be some time before Ohioans know how Tuesday’s election actually ended up.
Those votes could be a difference maker in some races.
As of Wednesday afternoon, almost 312,000 outstanding votes remained to be counted, according to the Ohio secretary of state’s website. Those are absentee ballots that were requested but not returned to the county board of elections by Nov. 3 or provisional ballots.
Even if they all came in for Joe Biden, they wouldn’t overcome the 400,000 votes that Donald Trump won in the Election Night count. But they could sway several Statehouse races, including a state Senate race in which the Republican incumbent leads her Democratic challenger by just 42 votes.
Even tighter is a suburban Columbus school levy that ended Election Night on track to pass by a mere two votes.
Further complicating matters is whether any of the outstanding ballots was languishing in a postal facility when the polls closed Tuesday.
Amid unprecedented mail-in voting, and amid reports that the United State Postal Service was badly missing its targets for processing ballots late in the race, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered the postal service to search its facilities serving 15 states for such ballots by 3:30 p.m. Tuessday. It was an order the postal service ignored, prompting Sullivan to say in a hearing Wednesday, “Someone might have a price to pay for that.” The judge added that Postmaster General and Trump ally Louis DeJoy “will have to be deposed or appear before me.”
It’s unclear how many ballots hadn’t been scanned and delivered to vote counters by the closing of the polls, but the postal service told the court there were 300,000 ballots it couldn’t trace nationwide. Also, other statistics filed with the court indicated that the post office badly missed its Election Day processing targets in deep-blue parts of swing states such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and Greensboro.
Other documents filed with the court indicated that some Ohio voters might have been affected by processing delays. For example, a region labeled “Northern Ohio” met its target for processing outbound ballots less than 5% of the time on Oct. 24.
The postal service didn’t respond to questions about how many Ohio voters might be affected by processing delays or why they happened. But Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said the postal service’s conduct didn’t inspire confidence.
“Clearly the postal service is part of the election process,” she said. “And if they’re so dysfunctional that they will not take a direct order from a judge we have a serious problem.”
Kayla Griffin of the voting-rights group All Voting is Local said she had no idea how many Ohio ballots might be sitting in postal facilities. But she said that if they’re found, there’s still time to count them.
“What we know is that ballots can be counted if they’re received at the board of elections by 10 days after the election,” she said.
In addition to that period, Ohio voters have a seven-day “cure” period to resolve any problems with their ballots.
Common ones have to do with signatures on mail ballots or people showing up at the polls without proper identification. For example, a recently married person who changed her name but not her driver’s license could take her marriage license to her board of elections to cure her ballot, Griffin said.
A surprisingly high percentage of absentee and provisional ballots end up being counted, said Ohio State emeritus political science professor Paul Beck. In the presidential election of 2016, 99% of Ohio absentee votes were counted, as were 85% of provisional ballots, he said.
Griffin pointed to Ohio’s razor-thin margins in some elections as a reason for citizens to fix their ballots if there are problems.
“It’s super-important to make sure every vote is counted,” she said.
If you have questions, call the Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-687-8683.