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Analysis: We May Not Know The Results On Election Night, And That's OK

Ohio election official Parvinder Singh works in the election night reporting center in Columbus, Ohio, as returns begin to come in for the Ohio primary Tuesday, April 28, 2020.
Gene J. Puskar
Ohio election official Parvinder Singh works in the election night reporting center in Columbus, Ohio, as returns begin to come in for the Ohio primary Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

Here's some free advice for anyone who plans to watch the election results Tuesday night (and likely into Wednesday morning). Take a tip from that noted sage of the baseball diamond, Yogi Berra – it ain't over until it's over.

Never mind the presidential contest for the moment, which has the potential to go on for weeks, and, heaven help us, even months after Tuesday.

Let's focus on Ohio for the moment and what to watch for.

First of all, you can count on election results in your county and state that will likely wave back and forth through the night and into the morning hours.

Why so, you ask?

Because of the way Ohio will count its votes, which is vastly different from some of its neighboring states.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said weeks ago that when the clock strikes 7:30 p.m. and the polling places close for business on Nov. 3, election officials in all 88 counties will begin tabulating the massive, record-breaking number of absentee ballots and in-person early votes cast before Election Day.

This will be an easy process because the ballots will all be prepared and ready for scanning. And, before you go conspiratorial on me and start leaping down the "voter fraud" rabbit hole, all of that prep work will be done by bipartisan teams – as is everything that happens in a board of elections in Ohio.

I would think that by 8 p.m. – maybe before and maybe a little after – the boards of elections will publicly release the results of the early voting.

Then, they will begin waiting for the cards from the scanning machines at the polling places to come rolling into board offices.

One thing is clear – both statewide and in particular in the large urban counties like Hamilton County – those early votes will be far more Democratic than Republican. We know from the party affiliations of the people who requested absentee ballots or who showed up early at their boards of elections.

It is reasonable to assume that the first wave of results will favor Democrat Joe Biden for president over Donald Trump, who won Ohio four years ago by about eight percentage points.

The same will be true in "blue" counties like Hamilton County, where local Democratic candidates for county offices will likely rack up large leads in the early vote totals.

Let's take the county prosecutor's race in Hamilton County as an example.

It will be instructive to see just how big a lead Democratic challenger Fanon Rucker has over incumbent Republican Joe Deters in the first round of results. Re-electing Deters is priority one for the Hamilton County Republican Party. Deters is certainly the favorite, but it may be more difficult than anyone imagined earlier this year.

For the rest of Tuesday night (and perhaps into Wednesday), the votes of those who cast ballots at their precinct polling places on Election Day will be counted.

Those votes are likely to be heavily Republican. A recent Quinnipiac Poll of Ohio voters had 65% of Ohio Republicans say they planned to vote on Nov. 3 at their polling places. Are many of them buying into the entirely baseless argument that voting by mail is rife with fraud on a massive scale? Or, maybe, they just like voting on Election Day.

Either way, when the count of Election Day voting is complete, it is entirely possible that the Rucker-Deters race might flip, with Deters taking the lead. But that doesn't mean he'll necessarily be declaring victory.

The board of elections will have to wait until Nov. 13 to allow absentee ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 to make their way to the board of elections. The next day, election officials can begin counting those late-arriving ballots and the provisional ballots cast on Election Day (contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of provisional ballots are approved and counted).

Under Ohio law, the official count will must be done by Nov. 24.

There is a another, new step on election night that may take some of the mystery out of waiting until three weeks after Election Day.

At the end of their election night count, all 88 counties must report the number of absentee ballots yet to be received and the provisional ballots cast. And that is public record.

So if you are candidate who is, say, 5,000 votes behind on election night and there are still 15,000 votes to be counted, you'll want to stick around until the final official count.

And, if you are so far ahead that every one of the outstanding ballots could go to your opponent and you would still be ahead, then you can probably go ahead and pop the Champagne corks.

Bottom line: Be prepared for a long night Tuesday to know exactly what happened in the 2020 election.

And make sure you stock up on coffee.

Howard Wilkinson is WVXU's senior political analyst. He has covered every Ohio governor's race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. 

This story was first published Nov. 2, 2020. 

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit .

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.