WASHINGTON – The "missing ballots" in Ohio's special election have caused a stir – but analysts said they really aren't a mystery and often pop up in elections across the country.
Under the rush of election nights, voting precinct officials nationwide often misplace ballots or send them to the wrong office. And those ballots are just as often discovered via audits or recounts, analysts said.
"It's not unusual," said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C. "It's one of the reasons people do recounts in close races."
Post-election audits also yield uncounted votes, as happened this week in the special election for Ohio's 12th congressional district.
Officials in Franklin County said Wednesday they had found 588 previously uncounted votes in a Columbus suburb.
And it happened because of human error, Franklin County Board of Elections spokesman Aaron Sellers insists.
When election officials brought two master personal electronic ballots – or PEBs, small devices inserted into voting machines – back to the Franklin County Board of Elections from a Worthington polling location, one was uploaded into the final, unofficial total of a super-tight congressional race.
The other was not.
The next day, as bipartisan members of the board of elections were reviewing the race, they realized the PEB's results were missing.
That PEB and its 588 votes were found. The breakdown was 198 votes for Republican Troy Balderson, 388 votes for Democrat Danny O'Connor and two for Green Party candidate Joe Manchik.
The mistake is embarrassing for Franklin County election officials, but they caught it quickly and the PEB was always in a secure location. Those 588 votes will be included – along with additional absentee and provisional ballots across the district – in the final tally, which must be tabulated by Aug. 24.
"We have a procedure in place, and it got missed," Sellers said. "We’re human."
While the post-election discovery of ballots isn't uncommon, it's hard to say how often this kind of thing happens.
Local officials often don't find or don't report missing ballots because most races are won by big margins.
"Most of the time, it just goes unreported because it doesn't affect the result," said Daniel P. Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University who specializes in election law.
That may not be the case in Ohio.
While Balderson and Trump have declared a Republican victory, O'Connor said he will not concede until every vote is counted.
Still outstanding: 3,435 provisional ballots and 5,048 absentee ballots that are expected to be counted by Aug. 24.
Balderson's slim margin over O'Connor could also trigger a recount, which in turn could yield more missing or uncounted ballots. That happened in the Florida recount following the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, until the Supreme Court halted the recount.
There are periodic news reports of found ballots. In November of last year, officials in Pierce County, Washington, discovered some 150 uncounted ballots from a primary election the previous August. They were found in a storage bin.
Also last year, a school board race in Wayne County, Michigan, may well have turned out differently because officials neglected to count ballots in a rush to certify the election.
In 2015, an organization called the Arizona Advocacy Network issued a report finding that more than 100,000 votes had not been counted throughout the past 10 years.
On occasion, post-election discovery of ballots are accompanied by allegations of chicanery. In one of the most famous examples, future president Lyndon Johnson won a U.S. Senate seat in 1948 after officials in South Texas dug up a box of uncounted ballots. The mystery of "Box 13" remains part of political lore.
More often than not, however, ballots are lost through human error that is often discovered.
"Every time people do recounts," Wertheimer said, "the numbers change."
Jessie Balmert of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported from Columbus, Ohio.