2004 Ohio Ballots not Preserved

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported today that

Despite a federal judge’s order to preserve all ballots from the 2004 presidential election – in which Ohio provided President Bush’s margin of victory – boards of elections in 56 of Ohio’s 88 counties lost, shredded or dumped nearly 1.6 million ballots and election records.

In 39 letters of explanation sent to newly elected Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, county election officials offered a litany of excuses for the missing and destroyed ballots – including spilled coffee, a flooded storage area and miscommunication with a county “Green Team” assigned to pick up recyclables. About half the lost ballots were unused, but even those are important for double-checking election results.

In Southwest Ohio, some unused ballots were shredded. Others were lost during a remodeling. Pages that verify punch-card ballot counts and the rotation of candidates’ names ended up in Mount Rumpke landfill, according to letters from four elections boards.

The loss of the ballots is important because, since the 2004 election, critics – on blogs, in Congress and in lawsuits – have questioned whether the election was conducted fairly. While many of those questions eased after several investigations and the Democratic election sweep in 2006 in Ohio, elections officials still worry about anything that leaves the perception that elections aren’t legitimate.

There are three interesting things here. First, there is generally a 18-24 month ballot retention (based on federal laws, supplemented by state laws) because you want to allow election controversies to work themselves out but also recognizing that retaining ballots can take up quite a bit of space. Second, I want to point out–since I have seen this reported before incorrectly–that these were almost always paper ballots used in Ohio in 2004. Third, as the NORC study showed after the 2000 election, reviewing ballots is an interesting parlor game but it is not conclusive. The nine different standards used in the 2000 post-election review in Florida produced nine different results and had Gore and Bush both winning (Gore 5, Bush 4).