Ohio Starts Scanning Early Ballots Before Election Day

A row of voting booths
Early voting begins at Cuyahoga County Board of Elections [Lucas Fortney / ideastream]
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Unlike some other states, Ohio will get a head start processing ballots as absentee votes begin streaming into county election boards this month.

Ohio’s voting procedures allow election officials to verify voter identities, open absentee envelopes and scan ballots before Election Day. What staff can’t do before the polls close Nov. 3 is tabulate those votes – that is, produce a readable report of results to date.

Getting a jump on ballot processing is “absolutely critical” for reporting that first wave of unofficial results after voting closes, Lorain County Board of Elections Director Paul Adams told ideastream.

“If we were not able to do that, there is no possible way that a board of elections the size of ours would be able to report unofficial results on Election Night,” he said, “including all of those absentee ballots that we’ve received by the close of polls on Election Day.”

ideastream wants to know your questions about Ohio’s voting procedures. We’ll work to find answers and publish what we learn all this month. Have a question? Ask it here!

How Ballot Processing Works

On Oct. 6, county election boards will open their doors for early in-person voting. They’ll also start mailing out ballots to voters who have requested them.

After voters return their completed ballots, election workers check the information on ballot identification envelopes, including names and signatures, Adams said. Then they open the envelopes and feed the ballots into scanners.  

“Confirming whether or not an absentee ballot identification envelope has the proper information to be valid, as well as opening and scanning the ballot into the system, is all permitted to be done before Election Day,” Adams said.

All that data goes into the board of elections’ tabulation computer servers, Adams said. As long as the polls are still open, boards cannot generate reports – either printed or on a computer screen – showing election results, he said.

As a precaution against hacking, the tabulation systems are not connected to the internet. And staff need two passwords to log in, Adams said: one held by Democratic employees, the other by Republicans.

“So it’s not like somebody that happens to be in the office can walk back there and, ‘Well, let’s see what we have here,’ or try to do something that would violate those rules,” Adams said. “There is additional security. You can’t even get into the room where this particular server is without a Democrat and Republican key pass.”

Boards begin posting results after the polls close at 7:30 p.m. on Election Day. Often, the first results the public sees are from the ballots returned and processed early.

The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office lays out the steps for processing absentee ballots in the state election officials’ handbook, Chapter 5, Sections 1.06 and 1.07.

What About Ballots Counted After Election Day?

One group of ballots not counted until later are provisional ballots. These are ballots that need additional checking to be sure they are valid.

Late-arriving absentee ballots also may be counted after Election Day. These are ballots that voters mailed on time – receiving a postmark from the U.S. Postal Service by Nov. 2 – but didn’t reach their destinations by 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Those ballots have until Nov. 13, 10 days after the election, to work their way through the mail system and arrive at boards of elections. If they are valid ballots, election officials will add them to the count.

Adams is hopeful most mail-in ballots will arrive before Election Day, because so many people have already requested absentees.

“What I’ve seen here in Lorain County is the vast majority of people who have wanted to vote via mail have submitted their applications already,” Adams said. “We’ve seen a pretty significant decline in new applications for mail ballots.”

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