By Eliza Steffen
There’s a bit of a kerfuffle over the results of Ohio’s 12th District special election this week, a close race between Democratic Franklin County recorder Danny O’Connor, and Republican state Senator Troy Balderson.
With unofficial results reporting Balderson winning by a slim margin of 1,754 votes (or .9 percent), some folks are clamoring for the official outcome.
To most people, Election Day ends when the polls close—and they expect decisions by evening.
While unofficial results can be released quickly, the official tally isn’t final until the results are certified. And they can’t be certified until they are canvassed, which is the process of compiling, reviewing and validating election returns. And that takes time in Ohio, and everywhere across the nation.
Looking at Ohio’s election calendar, there are several reasons results aren’t final yet, and won’t be until closer to the end of the month.
First, 3,435 provisional ballots were cast in the district. If a voter cast a provisional ballot because they were unable to present an acceptable form of identification, they are allowed seven days to show correct ID at their local board of elections.
That means that some percentage of these ballots could take up to a week to “cure” and then be counted; we just don’t know how many votes were provisional because of identification, or another reason, such as a name change.
All those other provisional ballots are being checked for eligibility too, and that takes time. Although not often discussed, provisional ballots are a common part of election administration and serve as a fail-safe for voters.
Additionally, in Ohio, absentee ballots—including those from military and overseas voters—must be postmarked by the day before the election (Aug. 6) and must be received at their county board of elections by 10 days after the election to be counted (Aug. 17).
Essentially, the seven county boards of elections in Ohio’s 12th will have to wait until Aug. 17 to know for sure that they have received all acceptable absentee ballots. As of Tuesday night, there are at least 5,048 absentee votes yet to be counted.
The official canvass will begin the day afterward, on Aug. 18. While local election officials can begin processing provisional votes and absentee ballots as they arrive, they cannot officially start the canvass until the 18th. Although state law says the canvass must begin by Aug. 22 and end by Aug. 28, a press release from the secretary of state, Jon Husted, says it will be completed by Aug. 24.
Ohio is not unusual in taking weeks to finalize election results. However, the state is in the minority by allowing a full 10 days for absentee ballots to arrive.
Maryland is the only other state that allows this much time for mailed ballots to come in. North Carolina and California set a three-day cutoff for absentee ballots to be received after Election Day, New York and Pennsylvania ballots must arrive by the seventh day post-election and Iowa’s must be received by noon on the following Monday.
Advocates for O’Connor are holding out hope that provisional and absentee ballots will bring the margin under 0.5 percent, triggering an automatic recount. And yet, it’s worth knowing that it’s rare for a recount to overturn the initial election results—vanishingly rare.
Some are hoping that the large proportion of absentee ballot requests from the district’s populous Franklin County will propel O’Connor to victory over Balderson. Voter turnout was higher in Franklin than in the district overall (42 percent to 37 percent), and the county went to O’Connor this time.
Generally, few pay attention to the nitpicky details of counting ballots. But, in close cases like these, details matter, and state law sets the standard for counting absentee, provisional and military votes.
Whatever the outcome, District 12 is virtually guaranteed to see a rematch in November.
Eliza Steffen is an intern with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program and a voter in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.