WOSU (Ohio State University) recently published a step-by-step explanation of how absentee ballots are processed in Ohio. WOSU It is fairly clear about the process, however does not provide some details that might be a bit confusing. Focusing just on the process stage that seems vague, the article states:

Mail-in ballots are then removed from their envelopes and inspected to ensure they don’t have coffee stains or tears, which would make them unable to be read by machines. Damaged ballots are still counted, just by hand instead. After being flattened to remove creases, ballots are fed through a machine that captures the voting record but does not create a count of how many votes a candidate has received. (Emphasis added)

Then further on the article states:

Once Election Day arrives, the data from the vote capturing machines is manually moved to a tabulation machine that generates the election results.

So part of my question is: What "data" does the vote capturing machine produce that is manually moved to the tabulation machine?

One possible answer is that the "vote capturing machine" is simply an optical scanner that produces an images of the ballots, and the "data" being "moved" is a collection of (perhaps) hundreds/thousands of digital images. Subsequently those digital images (which should be faithful representations of the original ballot) are then processed with optical sensors to tabulate the votes for each candidate for each office. However if that is so, what is gained by the intervening imaging step?

As far as I can tell the optical scanners that are used at the precinct level on election day do not create images that are then read again to perform tabulation.

Now to put a bit of icing on the cake, the Ohio Secretary of State (who is the election process "boss" , says on the (Secretary of State website) that "absentee ballots are the first votes counted on Election Night". (emphasis added). That seems to be a tall order, considering there are tens of thousands of absentee ballots to be tabulated, and yet (at the precinct) the vote tally for each candidate is displayed on the polling place door (usually) within 15 minutes or so of poll closing.

  • Ohio had 155,000 absentee ballots in the 2016 election. On the other hand, nothing says they have to wait for the poll to close to start counting them, so long as they don't announce anything. (Aside from whatever relevant laws Ohio may have, anyway) – Bobson Aug 12 '20 at 21:04
  • @Bobson: The OHIO primary election of 2020 was conducted exclusively by mail. Total number of ballots cast and counted = 1,810,000. The average for each county was ~20K (min~2k, max ~200K.) The state requirement for the SOS to certify within 30 days was met with no issues. Ohio State law is a bit ambiguous about the time to "counting" (see below), as contrasted with some other states that explicitly permit candidate counts to begin from 1 to 15 days before formal election day. – BobE Aug 13 '20 at 3:40
  • @Bobson It would appear that all states have a prohibition against releasing candidate counts prior to the close of polls. Penalties seem to range from misdemeanor to felony. – BobE Aug 13 '20 at 3:45

It does everything but count; validates, potentially rejects, and makes the selection machine-readable.

It's basically the same step as a teacher would use to grade a test with an answer key overlay; marking which questions were answered right and wrong. This is the step before counting the totals and assigning a grade, which is basically what the tabulator machine does.

As to why, it breaks the process into manageable chunks of work. Without commenting specifically on Ohio law (comments?) in many places votes cannot be legally counted until election day, ostensibly to prevent leaks from influencing the yet-to-vote. A tabulation machine can sum the captured data almost instantly. By pre-screening, all of the work that can legally be pre-done is, saving time on election day and getting results out sooner.

Why are they the first counted? Because on election night, the precinct can count thousands of votes instantly by putting the memory card into the tabulator, whereas ballots have to be physically fed in smaller batches.

  • Applying you analogy of test grading, something I'm quite familiar with:first step compare student answer with overlay, marking each answer correct, remove overlay, tally (count) the number of correct answers. (alternatively can mark each answer that is incorrect). Where this analogy fails is that there are no correct or incorrect answers when examining a ballot for an "answer" to a specific office on the ballot. However, the theme that it might be a two step process is reasonable. However I did not ask why it is a two step process. – BobE Aug 12 '20 at 15:19
  • What I did ask was what is the output of the vote capturing machine? Is it (as I understand from some states) a digital image of the original ballot, or is it a scorecard that places a series of check marks beside each candidates name each time that candidate has been selected for a specific office. Tabulation then consists of simply counting the number of check marks. – BobE Aug 12 '20 at 15:28
  • Ohio Code 3509.06 (G) "Special election officials, employees or members of the board of elections, or observers shall not disclose the count or any portion of the count of absent voter's ballots prior to the time of the closing of the polling places" - that said, how would it be possible to disclose the count prior to poll close, if the count is not performed prior to the poll close? – BobE Aug 12 '20 at 15:32

As an alternative way of explaining to the answer posted by @dandavis, it can simply be thought of as a spreadsheet. Each ballot is read and the votes entered into a row on the spreadsheet. In this way, each mail in ballot is captured, but until a formula is used to calculate the total votes for each candidate/proposal (in Excel parlance, a SUM() statement), the vote tally is unknown. When this spreadsheet (or, in actuality, probably a CSV file) is fed into the tabulation machine, it simply applies the SUM logic to the records to provide the tallied result, which can then be reported and added to the in-person ballots as they come in on election day.

The need to separate out the capturing and the tabulating of votes like this has to do with laws that set very specific limits on when a vote can actually be "counted". This page by the National Conference of State Legislatures details for each state the earliest that a vote can be counted, and thus the need to "tee up" absentee ballots (by performing some processing prior to this period) in order to spread the work out so that results can be gathered as soon as possible once this window opens.

  • I am presuming you mean the SUM() function is applied to each column, with each column representing a candidate. This sounds plausible, but to what is the point for doing so. Are the "vote capture machines" so primitive that they cannot maintain running sum of every column? The spread sheet (generated by the vote capture machine) has to be "manually moved" to a tabulation machine (which at this point sounds like a computer equipped with Excel) – BobE Aug 13 '20 at 2:17
  • So what I'm perplexed about (assuming that you and #dandavis are correct) is what is gained by adding another "machine" to complete the job of tallying the votes for each candidate. – BobE Aug 13 '20 at 2:21
  • @BobE As dandavis mentions in his answer, it is frowned upon, and possibly illegal in some jurisdictions, to count votes before election day, as knowledge of how the votes are falling can influence future votes, or provide unfair advantage to one side or the other in their campaigning. Preventing the capture machine from tabulating votes preserves this sanctity of the vote only being counted on election day. You can look at ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/… for more info on this. – cpcodes Aug 13 '20 at 17:35
  • agreed, your citation (NSCL) is what prompted my inquiry. Careful survey of their table reveals that there are several states where counting can commence prior to polls closing, sometimes by weeks. (but announcement is prohibited until closing). My tenative conclusion is that the technique of tabulating as a separate step is invoked to insure that an election officer could not announce incomplete tallies prior to closing. I guess the bottom line is that some jurisdictions trust the election officials to comply with the laws about early disclosure, and some do not. – BobE Aug 13 '20 at 18:59
  • (As an interesting contrast, see Dixville Notch, NH. where the precinct is closed but the county is still voting). – BobE Aug 13 '20 at 19:00

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