Ohio: Close Count Could Take Days

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Secret Service agents keep watch as Gov. Mitt Romney emerges from backstage during a campaign rally at University of Findlay on Oct. 28, 2012 in Findlay, Ohio.

With polls showing a tightening presidential race in Ohio, there’s at least a chance for what elections officials are calling the “nightmare scenario:” The U.S. presidential race comes down to Ohio on election night, and the race can’t be called for days.

That would happen if the margin of victory in the state were significantly less than the number of provisional ballots, which are cast by voters who show up at the polls, have moved and haven’t updated their registration, or who don’t appear in the polling place books. Those ballots are held for 10 days to verify voter eligibility.

Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, waited to concede to President George W. Bush 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 is raising the specter of the 2000 fight in Florida over hanging chads — this time, a battle over whether provisional ballots in the Buckeye State are valid and should be counted.

“I think that 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 Sunday 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 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 the directors of Ohio’s largest county elections boards also are saying they’re not 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 election official’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.”

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