Mail-In Elections Can’t Be Built Overnight. Here’s What Will Happen If Every State Tries.

Time is running out for making a COVID-19 mail-in election in November work.
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April 17, 2020 2:08 p.m.
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On Thursday, a niche trade organization called the National Association of Presort Mailers held the first of what is expected to be a regularly scheduled organization-wide teleconference. The call was to discuss a daunting task with which its members will be deeply involved: printing, packaging and mailing ballots for a general election in the midst of a pandemic.

On the call, the companies with the most experience working in the election space issued a dire warning to their colleagues, according to the leader of the trade group: with longstanding orders from established mail-in voting states, these companies said, they were already at capacity for printing and mailing operations for November’s election.

If more states and localities sought to expand their mail-in voting operations, those vendors — who typically work with the western states that already conduct massive absentee voting operations — would need to purchase more equipment. But obtaining that equipment takes several months, National Association of Presort Mailers president Richard Gebbie told TPM after the call, and vendors wouldn’t make that seven-figure investment without the contracts to justify it.

The conundrum, Gebbie fretted to TPM, is that if election officials wait even more than a few weeks to put in those orders, it would be too late for those vendors to scale up their own capacity.

“Those folks who were on the phone said, ‘For us, we can’t take one more piece of mail unless we buy gear,’” Gebbie told TPM, adding that the other vendors who don’t normally work on elections weren’t in place yet to carry any extra weight.

“Looking at the presidential coming up in the fall, I just don’t know what that’s going to look like if more than several states decide to do vote-by-mail, from a capacity standpoint,” Gebbie, who also runs the Ohio-based mail service vendor Midwest Direct, said. 

Most voters have probably never heard of the National Association of Presort Mailers. They might not even know such an industry exists. But if you live in a place where the most common way to cast a ballot is by mail, there’s a good chance these vendors play a crucial role in the success of your elections.

They’re often one part of an extremely complicated supply chain that allows large-scale vote-by-mail elections to run smoothly. In the handful of states where a majority of voters cast ballots by mail, that infrastructure took years to build. States with large-scale absentee operations rely on an intricate web of vendors and sophisticated equipment to make the system work. 

With the pandemic, states and localities everywhere are looking to scale up their absentee voting operations. And now the presort mailing industry needs to figure out if it will have the capacity to meet the surge in demand for services like printing ballots, stuffing envelopes, sending ballots, and tracking them through the mail. 

Policymakers who think they can wait until the summer to decide how much absentee voting their election officials need to prepare won’t be giving vendors enough time to build that infrastructure, experts worry.

“All these procurement decisions, if they’re made in the next month, jurisdictions will be fine. But if they wait until August, it will be a disaster,” said Nate Persily, a Stanford Law professor who served as research director for President’s Obama’s Commission on Election Administration.

Local election officials have mostly realized the decisions need to be made soon, said Amber McReynolds, the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, which works with administrators to expand absentee voting. Wisconsin’s chaotic primary in particular “raised the alert level.”

The “biggest problem,” she said, is the lack of urgency among those at the state level who, due to the “partisan political fight,” have been slow to OK the preparations.

“This isn’t an August decision, this isn’t even a July decision, this an April decision that needs to occur now,” she said.

‘When Everybody Is Surging, What Does This Look Like?’

Much focus has been on the springtime elections that were rescheduled for the coming months, and those too pose serious logistical challenges because of their quick turnaround. But from a supply chain perspective, the November elections present the greater risk for shortages and backorders, according Ben Hovland, a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 

“There’s a little bit more leeway with these staggered primaries for a vendor or a mailhouse or whoever,” Hovland told TPM. “But when everybody is surging, what does this look like?” 

For the process of printing and mailing out ballots — known as the “outbound” phase — election officials in places where absentee voting is less common may be used to physically selecting the appropriate ballot for the person requesting it and putting it in an envelope that they address by hand, according to Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund.

“So, when you have a million of those [requests] coming in, that’s where everyone gets really overwhelmed,” Patrick, a former elections administrator in the high-absentee voting state of Arizona, said.

Those officials now have to consider whether to rework that approach for the upcoming election cycle. Such a rework could include buying new equipment, seeking new vendors and changing up what levels of government are responsible for each step of the absentee voting process.

“You probably have a print vendor that can do your ballots,” said Judd Choate, director of elections of Colorado, a vote-by-mail state. “But you need to find one that could do your ballots plus, do your envelopes — and it’s the exterior envelope and the interior envelope — and then can do the inserts, and can assemble them, and then has a relationship with a postal vendor that can get those out.”

‘When There’s A Delay, Then People Start Questioning’

Exactly what an election official needs will depend on the size of her jurisdiction and how big of a jump this year’s expected absentee voting levels will be from normal practices.

The staff in smaller, more rural counties might opt to handle the bulk of outbound operations themselves. But they should consider tools that can help on the “inbound” side, i.e. the handling of ballots once they come in, veterans of vote-by-mail elections say. Even something like an automated envelope opener, which can run around $1,000, can vastly speed up the inbound process.

Larger jurisdictions might want to invest in specialized sorting machines that organize incoming ballots before they are counted. Those cost $500,000 or more, according to Hovland.

Then there’s the actual counting of absentee ballots. Election officials need to think about buying special high-speed tabulators that can count several ballots at time. Such tabulators usually aren’t used during in-person voting, when ballots can be counted more slowly.

Just before the COVID-19 outbreak started scrambling elections, local officials in Lansing, Michigan — where absentee voting was already being scaled up due to 2018 changes to voting law — were unable to get a high-speed tabulator they ordered for their March 10 primary because their vendor was on backorder.

The experience has the county clerk, Barb Byrum thinking about buying an extra high speed tabulator to have available in case one of the local officials needs one, as she urges the legislature to make other changes to the procedures to speed up the absentee counting process.

“I see the train coming,” Byrum said, worrying that “unofficial election night results are going to be delayed significantly at the county level.” 

“When there’s a delay, then people start questioning,” she said. “And I worry about the public confidence in our elections, as a result of no fault of the clerk, but rather lack of resources and lack of focus by our elected officials whose names appear on the ballot.”

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