Ballot Scanners And Lots Of Memory Sticks: How Ohio Counts Votes

On Election Night, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections tabulates votes at its warehouse in Cleveland.
On Election Night, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections tabulates votes at its warehouse in Cleveland. [Tim Harrison / ideastream]
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This fall, election workers will sort mountains of paper, upload data from thousands of USB sticks and tabulate millions of votes — all to tell Ohioans who won their 18 electors, who will don judges’ robes, who will ascend to local office and who will pay more in taxes.

How do county election boards keep it all straight?

“You have to be extremely organized,” Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Director Anthony Perlatti said. “We put a bar code on everything, we label everything.”

Here’s a look at what happens from the time a ballot leaves a voter’s hand until it joins the winning — or losing — vote totals that flash across televisions and computer screens in the hours and weeks after Election Day.

Early To Vote, Early To Count

Already, county election boards have received millions of completed ballots at drop boxes, through the mail and at early voting sites. In Ohio, election officials can begin processing those ballots right away.

Speeding ballots along at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections are three industrial letter-opening machines, known as OPEX Model 72s. Bipartisan teams of two operate each one, which can open some 3,600 mail-in ballot envelopes an hour, according to the board.

The OPEX 72 removes the ballot’s outer envelope, exposing the internal identification envelope, Perlatti said. Next, election workers run the ballots through an Agilis sorting machine.

The Agilis scans each internal envelope, capturing both the voter’s handwritten ID information and a bar code that’s linked to the registered voter database, Perlatti said.

Working at computer screens, election staff compare voter database information with an image of the ID envelope. If the two match, they approve the ballot.

In this video provided by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, staff demonstrate the machines used to slice open envelopes and sort absentee ballots.

This process is much more efficient than the board’s old way of doing things, Perlatti said.

“You actually had a person with a hand scanner flipping through a tray trying to, one by one, scan that bar code, so we know when we go to the voter registration database whose it is,” he said. “And then it was physically taking the envelope and comparing it to a report.”

But if ID envelopes lack necessary information, voters still have a chance to make a correction. Boards must contact voters and provide a form to fix whatever is missing.  

After ballots are validated, workers open the envelopes and check that the city, ward and precinct on the ballot match those of the voter, Perlatti said. Then, staff feed the ballots through scanners, saving the data on memory sticks.

At in-person early voting sites, voters insert the ballots into scanners themselves.

Boards must keep those sticks safe until the polls close on Election Night. Tabulation rooms, where computers will count the votes after the polls close, are locked and accessible only to bipartisan teams.

“We have a gigantic, fireproof safe in the tabulation room that a Democrat has half the code to get in, a Republican has half the code,” Perlatti said, “and in there, on all these shelvings, we have everything meticulously labeled.”

It’s a huge advantage to be able to process early ballots before the polls close Nov. 3 because it saves time for counting Election Day votes, Perlatti said.

“That’s why if people are pretty sure they know how they want to vote and they have their ballot, we’d really appreciate for them to get it back in to us now, and not delay on that,” he said.

Ballots On The Big Day

On Election Day in Cuyahoga County, voters record their decisions on paper ballots at precinct polling locations. Then they send their ballots through on-site scanners, which record the data on memory sticks.

But not every Ohio county votes that way. Some counties use a variety of electronic touchscreen voting machines, though none of the machines are connected to the internet. The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office has a map showing which method and machine each county uses.

Polling places across the state close at 7:30 p.m. on Election Day, but any voter in line at the deadline will be able to cast a ballot.

Once the last person has voted at a polling place, election workers drive the ballots and memory sticks back to the board’s central processing site.

Bipartisan teams of Democrats and Republicans handle every step in the process, according to Aaron Ockerman, the director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

“From the time we’re dropping off voting machines at the voting location, to running those ballots and those results back to the board of elections, to uploading those results in the system, at no time is the process ever controlled or only accomplished by one of the political parties,” Ockerman said.

Time To Tabulate

By the time the polls close on Election Night, county boards have been scanning ballots for several weeks.

But no one should have seen a single vote count yet. Those numbers don’t start to appear until election workers tabulate the results on Election Night, after the polls close.

In a locked room, workers upload ballot data from encrypted memory sticks into a tabulation computer that is not connected to the internet. Proprietary vote tabulation software keeps a running count of results, Perlatti said. 

Neither candidates nor random members of the public can walk into the tabulation room to check on results, Ockerman said.

“You can’t even get into the room where the tabulator is, to be honest with you, unless you have a Republican and a Democrat key or passcode to get in, that have to be entered at the same time,” he said.

Periodically through the night, election staff use a different set of single-use memory sticks to transfer the results from the tabulation computer to one that is connected to the internet. From there, boards post results on their websites and send them to the secretary of state.

Because those memory sticks touched an internet-connected computer, boards don’t reuse them. This safeguard helps protect the tabulation computer from online malware.

“Those sticks are used once and only once, and they’re encrypted, and then they’re destroyed and not recycled,” Ockerman said. “And we order thousands upon thousands upon thousands of those sticks for every election and don’t reuse them.”

Typically, the first results Ohioans see on Election Night come from absentee ballots — the votes cast by mail and early in person. Next usually come the Election Day precinct results.

There may be clear winners and losers after boards finish posting Election Night totals. But even so, the results are still unofficial and incomplete.

There are still more ballots to count: provisional and late-arriving absentees.

The Counting Goes On

Election workers give provisional ballots to voters whose ID information can’t be verified on the spot. For seven days after Election Day, those voters may be asked to provide additional information to prove that they are properly registered to cast a ballot.

This is known as the “cure period.” Boards must be open to the public during this period — not just for provisional voters to correct their information, but also for voters whose absentee ballots were deficient in some way.

For 10 days after the election, boards will continue accepting mailed absentee ballots postmarked prior to Election Day. This allows timely, valid absentee votes to count even if there were delays in mail delivery.

Eleven days after Election Day — Nov. 14 this year — the official count can begin. Election workers tabulate the valid provisional and absentee ballots. Then they re-tabulate all the votes cast on or before Election Day. The sum of those two numbers is the official canvass.  

By state law, boards have until three weeks after Election Day complete this official count. This year, that date is Nov. 24, but Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is asking boards to finish the process by Nov. 18.

LaRose’s office said the earlier deadline will allow more time for a potential statewide recount before the Electoral College, with Ohio’s 18 electors, meets to decide the presidential race. The move frustrated Democratic officials, who said boards should be given the full amount of time for the count.

Election officials automatically recount any races in which the margin of victory was less than 0.5 percent. Losing candidates can also request recounts.

There’s still another step to complete once the official results are released: the post-election audit. Boards pick at least three races and count raw votes from a selection of precincts, comparing that count to the official results.

Once all that is finished, it’s time to get ready for the next election. Presidential candidates may not be on the ballot in 2021, but plenty of other races are. Cleveland and many other Ohio cities will elect mayors next year, so there’s still ample reason to show up and do it all over again.

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