At the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin previews what a recount would look like in Ohio. Forget not having a clear winner tonight — if the election comes down to a dispute over a few thousand votes in Ohio, we might not have a clear winner until after Thanksgiving:
In recent elections, Ohio voters have cast about two hundred thousand provisional ballots in major statewide contests. (Voters cast provisional ballots when there is some question about whether they are entitled to vote. The provisional ballot kicks the issue of the validity of the ballot down the road.) This year, the number may well grow. …
So what happens with the provisional ballots? According to Ohio law, the eighty-eight counties in the state are not even allowed to start counting the provisional ballots for ten days. In the meantime, those who cast provisional ballots are allowed to submit evidence that their votes should count—they can, for example, show forms of identification that they might not have brought with them to the polls on November 6th.
This scenario isn’t necessarily a long-shot, either. In 2008, Obama beat John McCain by 200,000 votes in Ohio. Based on the early voting numbers and polls that show Ohio as a statistical tie, that margin is likely to shrink this time around. According to Toobin, provisional ballots have tended to number around 200,000 in recent Ohio elections, and there’s reason to think that might be higher this year.
Here’s Toobin’s timeline:
On November 17th, the counties would begin counting the provisional ballots and conduct a canvass of all votes cast. This is called the official canvass, and it’s supposed to take ten days or less. The counties would report their totals to Ohio’s secretary of state, Jon Husted, who is a Republican. He would then determine if the candidates were within .25 per cent of each other—that is, a quarter of one per cent. If so, state law demands that he conduct a recount.
The recount, if it’s ordered, would probably take place in about five days.
That would bring us to December 1 — and that’s if everything goes smoothly. As we saw 12 years ago in Florida, there’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong. Toobin notes two other factors that could have an impact on the recount:
Two more points about recounts. First, control of the process is crucial. Republicans controlled Florida in 2000. Remember the secretary of state Katherine Harris? (If not, refresh your memory.) A partisan Republican like Husted in charge of the process is like an extra percentage point or two in the vote count. Likewise, in Florida, Governor Rick Scott directs a team of loyal Republicans in supervising the electoral process. In short, no one in state government in either state will be cutting Obama any breaks.
Second, passion matters. In recounts, the side that wants to win the most usually does. (Jay Weiner also makes this point in his excellent book on the 2008 recount in the Minnesota Senate race, “This Is Not Florida.”)
In Florida, in 2000, James Baker III lead a coördinated political, media, and legal effort that swamped the threadbare Gore forces, who were led, timidly, by Warren Christopher.
Don’t expect either side to be caught off-guard this year. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns are already lawyered up and ready for this. And the fact that Ohio has a Republican secretary of state is sure to be included in any media and political campaign Team Obama would launch in the event of a recount. If you think the race has been nasty so far, just imagine how much worse it would get under a recount scenario.