Twenty-two months. That’s how long it’s took England’s Nick Butter to run a marathon in every one of the 196 UN-recognized countries on the planet. It’s how long it takes for an elephant to carry a baby to term. And it’s also the lifespan of the ballot that you cast in the November presidential election.
With Joe Biden’s electoral win certified by Congress, the 2020 Presidential election is now behind us. But the more that 156 million ballots cast by Americans in November will remain under seal in storage areas across the country until at least September of 2022. That's thanks to a federal law that requires all ballots that include a race for federal office be kept for no less than 22 months.
"As you can imagine the city of Worcester is a decent sized city. We have 50 precincts. So it’s certainly a large operation when it comes to storing the ballots," said Worcester City Clerk Niko Vangjeli.
All ballots in Worcester, and elsewhere in Massachusetts, are required to be sealed in full public view on election night before being securely transported to a storage area. In Worcester, that’s in the basement of city hall.
"We have an election operation room, its very secure and within it it has, kind of, a vault," said Vangjeli.
All 3.6 million ballots cast by Massachusetts voters in November have been sealed and stored like this in cities and towns across the state, though a few have been cracked open once since the election.
In 2016, Massachusetts began performing an audit following each presidential election — selecting 3% of its more than 2,000 precincts at random for a hand recount. This essentially serves as an additional check on the accuracy of voting machines — which are also tested before each election. Among the 66 precincts randomly selected in this year’s lottery, held over Zoom, were two in Bedford.
"It’s a lottery that you don’t really want to win, and we won it twice this year," joked Bridget Rodrigue, Bedford’s Town Clerk who oversaw their hand count in early November.
Rodrigue said the pandemic presented some chllenges, though ultimately the audit went smoothly with the help of volunteers. Ultimately, their hand count differed from their election night count by just two votes.
"It wasn’t exact," said Rodrigue. "You know, there are some human errors when you are tallying so that, I think, is to be expected. I actually think I trust the machines more."
Statewide, nearly half of the audited precincts showed no difference between their election night count and subsequent hand count. All told, 73 additional ballots were counted among more 100,000 — and the vote totals differed slightly. Those are numbers that a spokesperson for Secretary of State William Galvin's office described as "expected minor differences."
Massachusetts’ millions of paper ballots will now sit in storage until September 2022, when they will be destroyed. Vangeli says they shred them in Worcester. Rodrigue says, in Bedford, they are thrown in recycling bins.
But between now and then, could they yet be revisited, reopened — even recounted?
"It probably is possible, but you would need a court order and overwhelming evidence of fraud for it to happen," said John Lappie, political scientist at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.
Lappie said there are a handful of examples from America’s distant past where election results were revisited — and changed — following a recount months after the fact. Those occured in the 19th century when, in Lappie's words, "there really was a lot of voter fraud going on."
But Lappie can’t think of a single case in modern times where anything like that has occurred.
And even if the courts were to order that all ballots to be unsealed and recounted, it likely wouldn’t completely quell the charges of widespread fraud from some quarters.
"There really is nothing to actually see on the ballots," explained Lappie. "For example, you couldn’t say 'we found this many invalid voters,' because, well, the ballots don’t have anybody’s name on them."
Here in Massachusetts with the audit completed and the period for candidates to request a recount expired, the ballots will almost certainly remain untouched until they are destroyed on schedule. But in other states where litigation could continue, like Pennsylvania and Georgia — where ballots have already been counted multiple times — they could yet be ordered to be kept for even longer.