I just got off of a series of phone calls with reporters who are asking about absentee ballots and how they are treated by elections officials.
While the administrative rules and procedures vary by state (as with almost everything in American elections), there are some consistent patterns that reporters need to understand.
Absentee ballots go through a number of steps before they are fed into a counting machine. The signature on the external envelope needs to be verified. This is done either with a computer or with a human, and there are always backups when signatures are deemed questionable. The ballot is then separated from the external envelope–this is done to maintain the secrecy of the ballot (except in North Carolina where, at least in the past, it was possible to relink the two via a security code).A few states are “voter intent” states (California, Oregon, Washington, perhaps others), and in these states, the ballots are then examined and “remade” by ballot review boards. In other states (e.g. Arkansas) this process does not take place unless an absentee ballot is rejected by the ballot counting machine.
Ballots are then typically scanned using an optical character recognition machine. This information is stored on a memory card.
Finally, at some point, an elections official hits the “tabulate” button that provides the candidate totals for the absentee ballots which have been scanned into the machine. There is not, of course, a big Staples type “total” button–what this practically means is that the machine creates a report that contains a number of pieces of information, such as total ballots counted, total ballots accepted, total votes for each candidate in each race, and, depending on the report, candidate totals by precinct.
(Here is an example of one such report from Bay County, FL from the November 2011 election.)
It’s important to understand these distinctions, because many journalists don’t realize that “scanning” is not the same as “tabulating.” In most states, election officials are forbidden by law from tabulating before the close of polls on election day. However, many if not most process the absentee ballots, and many scan the absentee ballots prior to the close of polls. If they did not, and if they receive substantial number of by-mail ballots, election returns would be delayed hours if not days.
There is some information on the varying state laws at the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) (the Table is here and the full report is here) but I have confirmed with a number of election officials that this report is insufficiently detailed. The final column in this table is titled “When Absentee Ballot Counting May Begin,” but is is clear from the entries that some states interpreted “counting” to mean the tabulation step, while others interpreted it to mean the processing step.
Compare, for example, the answer for Ohio (November 6th) and Oregon (Begin scanning Oct 30). Does this mean that Ohio does not even process and scan the ballots until November 6th? No–they are allowed to begin the first two steps 10 days before the election. The November 6th entry refers to the date on which they tabulate the actual results.
Finally, if reporters want to know which states are likely to have amended counts after the close of polls, they need to pay attention to the third column, “Deadline to Return Regular Absentee Ballots (mail).”
This is also insufficiently detailed, because many states allow you to return the “by mail” ballot in person. What is really needed here is a) the deadline to return the absentee ballot (by any means) and b) Location to return the absentee ballot (only the county office or precinct places).
As I have reported here before, in some states citizens can return an absentee ballot to the local polling place. If substantial voters choose this option–17% did so in Arizona in 2010 and 14% did in Los Angeles County in 2008–then there is no way that these ballots will even begin to be processed before a few hours after the polls close on Tuesday.
And for those eleven states which require only a postmark, not a delivery, by election day, it could be days or even weeks before a final tabulation is available.