Vote for One

Life of a Ballot

Millions of voters will head to the polls on Election Day to choose the next president. But once a voter casts a ballot, what happens next and how does the counting process work?

Welcome to Hamilton County, Ohio

To answer that question, we took a look at Hamilton County, a large county in the crucial swing state of Ohio. The Buckeye State plays an important role in presidential politics: It has been won by the eventual victor in each of the last 13 elections.

At the Polls

On Election Day, voters enter private booths to fill out their ballots. Some voting locations have switched to touch screens, but Hamilton County relies on paper ballots, according to Sherry Poland, the director of the county’s board of elections.

After the Vote Is Cast

After voting and leaving the booth, the ballot is scanned electronically and then placed into a secure box. The ballots stay at the polling place until everyone has voted, Poland said.

Campaign-Free Zone

Campaigning, of course, continues through Election Day across the country. But in Hamilton County, American flags outline a 100-foot buffer zone around a polling place, where campaigning is prohibited. In Ohio the parties may, however, appoint precinct observers, who can inspect the proceedings of the election. Each state differs in how observers and watchers are chosen, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Transporting the Ballots

Because there are so many votes cast in Hamilton County, bipartisan teams of poll workers take boxes of ballots and drop them off for collection at various satellite locations, such as community centers. These teams are with the ballots the whole way. Some of the workers will eventually collect the boxes and bring them to the county’s board of elections.

Counting the Ballots

The board of elections uses memory cards with information from the scanned ballots cast at polling places across the county to count the votes. This tabulation system is secure and not connected to the internet, according to Poland.

Off to the Secretary of State’s Office

As the votes are tallied by the county, they are sent to the Ohio secretary of state’s office, which eventually posts results on its website.

How the Data Comes In

The largest counties must send vote data every 15 minutes, according to Matt McClellan, communications director for the Ohio secretary of state. The next largest counties send data every 30 minutes, and the smallest counties in the state send every hour. Other ballots that were sent by mail or cast in-person at the board of elections are included in the total count.

Collecting Ballots in Really Big Counties

This method of aggregating ballots from the precinct all the way up to the state level is typical nationwide. How the ballots are transported, though, varies. Los Angeles County, for example, as large and spread out as it is, relies on helicopters to transport bags of its ballots for counting.

The Official Canvas

Following Election Day, Ohio’s counties must complete what’s called an official canvas, which is the final vote count. This must be completed 21 days after the election, McClellan said.

Electoral College Meets

Finally, the Ohio Electoral College meets to cast its votes for the winning candidate. Typically, they meet at the statehouse. The electoral college sends its results to the U.S. Congress, which counts the votes, marking the end of the election process. And that’s democracy in action.


David Taintor, Sam Petulla & Ian Rose

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