What Happens to All the Ballots From Election Day?

They’ll likely be shredded by Christmas of 2010.

With all but a few House and Senate races decided, election officials around the country are finishing up the process of counting the vote. When all is said and done, those officials will have processed more than 120 million ballots. What happens to them after they’ve been tallied up?

They’ll be stored until at least September 2010. According to U.S. code, ballots and other records related to any federal election—that means for president, U.S. Senate, or U.S. House of Representatives—must be kept for at least 22 months. Beyond that, it’s up to the state to decide what to do with them. In most cases, the details of ballot storage during that interval are left up to local election boards.

In Arkansas, for example, board of election commissioners in each county keep the ballots for 20 days, after which point they can place them in a secured area in the county courthouse or a government warehouse. After two years, the ballots may be destroyed. State laws don’t typically say how to destroy an old ballot. (In Maine, for example, the rule simply dictates that they be “destroyed using a method that makes the contents unreadable.” [PDF]) Conversations with election officials at a half-dozen locations across the country revealed that shredding appears to be the method of choice. (Sending ballots straight to a recycling center is another option.) The Ohio secretary of state issued a more specific directive last year (PDF) requiring that voter registration materials, including personal information like absentee ballot applications, be either destroyed with a “criss-cross shredder” or sent to a “qualified, certified and bonded document disposal business.”

Most of the time, this process of storing and then destroying the ballots is pretty mundane. But in a couple of recent cases, critics have questioned whether 22 months is long enough. After the Florida recount, lawyers and historians made the case that the ballots should be kept for posterity’s sake; today, members of the public can stop by and view them at the Florida State Archives. (See this Explainer from the days immediately following the recount for details of the original plans for storing the ballots.) In Ohio, a judge presiding over a lawsuit brought by groups alleging voter suppression and fraud during the 2004 election ordered that the county boards keep ballots past September 2006, when their 22-month period expired. But documents obtained by the plaintiffs show that in many Ohio counties, the ballots weren’t all kept as mandated—an error officials blamed on miscommunications following the judge’s order.

Bonus Explainer: Nationally, 98 percent of precincts had reported their election results as of early Thursday afternoon, according to CNN. But Oregon and Washington are both listed as having at least 20 percent of votes outstanding. How come the Northwest states are so slow to count their votes?

Because most voters there vote by mail. That makes counting the votes a much longer process, as election officials must verify more information and handle more paper. Moreover, while election results typically refer to the percent of precincts reporting, that number doesn’t really apply in Washington or Oregon. In Oregon, where the ballots must arrive by Election Day, the “percent reported” number refers to the percentage of ballots counted compared with the number of registered voters in the state. So unless every voter casts a ballot, that number will never reach 100 percent. (Officials expect turnout will be closer to 85 percent this year.) In Washington, things are even more complicated; voters there only need to postmark their ballots by Election Day, so counties may have to wait a few days to receive every vote.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Sarah Cherry of Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, Tim Humphries of the Office of the Arkansas Secretary of State, Don Hamilton of the Office of the Oregon Secretary of State, and David Ammons of the Office of the Washington Secretary of State.