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There's often little drama at Ohio election night watch parties - but that might be changing

Bernie Moreno speaks on winning the Republican nomination for Ohio's US Senate race at his election night watch party, with his wife Bridget alongside him.
Sarah Donaldson
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Bernie Moreno speaks on winning the Republican nomination for Ohio's US Senate race at his election night watch party, with his wife Bridget alongside him.

On election nights, candidates or backers of issues often hold what have become commonly known as “watch parties” where supporters can gather together to watch the vote come in. But often, there’s not much to watch anymore.

Imagine going to a friend’s house to watch a game. After just the first few plays, a network announcer breaks in to project a winner based on data they have gathered. It would put a pall on the excitement of the event, right? But that’s similar to what’s happening at many political watch parties lately, as news networks have invested big bucks into voting data, polling and more to project winners soon after polls close.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks to his supporters in a Columbus area restaurant/bar after his loss in the Republican U.S. Senate primary to Bernie Moreno, a Northeast Ohio businessman.
Jo Ingles
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks to his supporters in a Columbus area restaurant/bar after his loss in the Republican U.S. Senate primary to Bernie Moreno, a Northeast Ohio businessman.

After polls closed on the night of the March Ohio primary, supporters of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Frank LaRose gathered at a Columbus area pub. National TV news gave occasional updates with early results—mostly absentee voting totals. People watched their phones and some asked reporters for updates. Journalists who were monitoring results from the Ohio Secretary of State’s office didn’t have much more information as results trickled in slowly.

At parties for Bernie Moreno and Matt Dolan in Northeast Ohio, monitors carried coverage of statewide politics but didn’t have results that were substantially different than what was on the Secretary of State’s website.

About an hour after polls closed, while early results were being posted to the website, national networks started making the call on the race, projecting a win for Moreno. Soon after Dolan conceded, supporters offered their condolences. And after that, Moreno made his victory speech.

Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls) greets supporters after conceding to Bernie Moreno in the Republican U.S. Senate primary on March 19, 2024.
Karen Kasler
/
Statehouse News Bureau
Sen. Matt Dolan (R-Chagrin Falls) greets supporters after conceding to Bernie Moreno in the Republican U.S. Senate primary on March 19, 2024.

Why are races called before results are shown?

National networks have spent a lot of money upgrading data, collecting voter information, exit polling, and polling before the election. That helps them be able to project winners quickly.

Paul Adams, the president of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials and the Democratic president of the Lorain County Board of Elections, said networks have people known as stringers monitor key precincts on election night.

“We leave, at all of the polling locations throughout the state, a list of how that polling location voted before all of the poll workers leave. So local campaigns and some of the larger media networks like the Associated Press, they will have people go out, they call them “stringers,” they’ll go out to some of these locations. So in some cases on election night, the local Associated Press or a local candidate who is looking for their own races, they may have already gone out to a handful of those polling locations, looked at those tapes, and they already know the numbers of how people voted at those polling places, even before I know," Adams explained.

LaRose, the Republican Secretary of State, said people watching his website on election night are getting more information now than at any time in the past. And while he says the current system doesn’t allow precinct results to be reported immediately, he says improvements to the state’s reporting system are coming to allow more results to be put out earlier on Election Night.

“Right now, those numbers tend to get aggregated at the county board of elections in aggregate but we will be able to start reporting at a much more granular level once the data act is fully implemented which is something that we are looking forward to," LaRose said.

LaRose said most of the changes would occur after the November election though some might be brought online earlier.

“There are a lot of technological changes we need to make to get that done," LaRose said.

There are still some Ohioans who, despite no evidence, question the validity of elections. If the public cannot monitor the returns quickly, and the race is announced early, there’s concern that exacerbates the mistrust. LaRose said it’s important voters remember the totals on election night are only projections and there are still outstanding mail-in or provisional votes at that point.

“The final official total is the one that really matters. Election night is just people racing to be the first one to call the race," LaRose said.

LaRose said he has made more information available in recent years, noting the secretary of state's website shows the total of early ballots were requested but not returned. He said that gives people the idea of how many votes could still be outstanding at the end of the night.

For more information about Election Night reporting and changes being made to it, check out "The Ohio Statehouse Scoop," a new podcast from Ohio Public Media Statehouse News Bureau.

Contact Jo Ingles at jingles@statehousenews.org.