With polls showing a tightening U.S. presidential contest in Ohio, there’s a chance for what elections officials call the “nightmare scenario”: The race comes down to Ohio on election night, and the election can’t be called for days.
That could happen if the margin of votes in Ohio were significantly less than the number of provisional ballots cast. These ballots are cast by voters who show up at the polls and have moved residences and haven’t updated their registration, or who don’t appear in the polling-place books. Provisional ballots are held for 10 days to verify voter eligibility.
Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, waited to concede to President-elect George W. Bush that year until he was persuaded that the outstanding provisional ballots in Ohio wouldn’t change the outcome.
The potential for a close vote in Ohio on Nov. 6 raises the specter of a fight like the 2000 dispute in Florida over flawed ballots -- this time, a battle over whether provisional ballots in the Buckeye State are valid and should be counted.
“The odds probably are not higher than 50-50 that it will happen, but as the race tightens and as Ohio becomes more central to the final results, the odds creep up,” said Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University. “It’s now something that I think we really need to think about.”
An Ohio newspaper poll released yesterday showed the race between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney deadlocked at 49 percent. The poll was conducted by the University of Cincinnati’s Institute for Policy Research for Ohio’s eight largest newspapers.
There were 206,859 provisional ballots cast in Ohio in the 2008 election, of which 81 percent were counted, according to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office. There were 105,195 provisional ballots issued in 2010, with 89 percent counted.
The number of provisional ballots could be reduced this year by a Husted initiative to update addresses on voter registrations, according to Aaron Ockerman, a spokesman for the Ohio Association of Election Officials in Columbus.
They also could increase because every Ohio voter received an application for an absentee ballot this year, and if voters request one and don’t return it, they would cast a provisional ballot on Election Day, Ockerman said.
“It’s kind of nightmare scenario, but so many things would have to wrong for that to be the case,” Ockerman said.
While directors of Ohio’s largest county elections boards also say they aren’t overly concerned about the prospect at this point, Amy Searcy, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati, offered a version of the elections supervisor’s prayer: “I don’t care who wins, just make them win by a lot.”
Republican Governor John Kasich said on “Meet the Press” yesterday he thinks Romney will carry Ohio and that provisional ballots won’t decide the race.
“It’s going to be very close,” Kasich said. “But yes, I do think that we will know before the end of the night.”