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Legally Speaking: Why election results are never final on election night in Ohio

3News Legal Analyst Stephanie Haney explains the law surrounding counting ballots that arrive after election day and when Ohio can officially declare winners in 2020
Credit: Ohio Secretary of State
In Ohio, election results can't be certified by the Secretary of State until at least November 18, 2020, and must be completed no later than November 28, 2020.

CLEVELAND — Legal Analysis: While many are celebrating election day as the final day of voting in the 2020 election on November 3, the journey to declaring who the next President of the United States will be is likely far from over.

Legally speaking, Ohioans never know who the winners are on election night, without having anything to do with investigating voter fraud or other potential security issues.

In one sense, however, Ohio voters will have access to more information than ever before on election day. 

For the first time ever, while the in-person voting results roll in, the state of Ohio is sharing how many ballots are still out there waiting to be counted on the Secretary of State's website.

Those outstanding ballots include provisional ballots cast at polling locations, both early and on election day, as well as this year’s record number of mail-in votes, cast in part due to pandemic safety concerns.

Absentee ballots sent by mail have until November 13 to show up at County Board of Elections offices across the state, as long as they were postmarked by November 2.

That means that if there are a lot of properly submitted absentee ballots that are still in transit, and the races are close, we will have to wait to project winners.

Even if the races aren't close, and most of the votes are in, election night results in Ohio are never truly final because of those outstanding ballots.

Each county board of elections can’t even start to officially finalize things until November 14, as outlined in a directive issued by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. The county offices then have until November 18 to send their official election reports to LaRose's office.

It’s only after all of those official reports come in that LaRose can certify the winners of the 2020 election.

In previous years, when polls closed on election day, it was just easier to project who the certified winners would be because most voting was done in person, on that day.

But this year, safety concerns related to COVID-19 have changed all that.

And as for all of that talk about mail-in ballots getting tossed out due to errors with identification envelopes and missing stubs, Ohio has taken yet another new step this year to protect against that happening.

Under a new policy implemented this year, if there's a problem with your absentee ballot, every Ohio County Board of Elections office has to try to reach you by phone or email, in addition to regular mail, so you can fix it during the week after election day.

As you can see, just like in every other year, there is a lot happening behind the scenes in the weeks after the polls close.

In Ohio, we’ll be waiting for official elections results until at least November 18, barring any other issues with the vote.

If other questions related to Ohio's vote arise, like for example, the need for a recount, it could be even longer.

Remember, Ohio's election results are unofficial until their certification by the Secretary of State. That certification must be completed no later November 28, 2020.

Stephanie Haney is licensed to practice law in both Ohio and California.

The information in this article is provided for general informational purposes only. None of the information in this article is offered, nor should it be construed, as legal advice on any matter.