- Supply chain slowdowns, shortages and rising paper costs threaten this year’s election.
- Paper ballots, voter registration forms and even “I voted” stickers are all at risk.
- “We’re a little paranoid,” said Ricky Hatch, an election official from Weber County, Utah.
Supply chain backlogs, supply shortages and rising costs for the paper that the U.S. electoral system relies on could wreak havoc midterm in 2022, officials and experts warn.
Election administrators have “backup plans for backup plans,” said Ricky Hatch, the county auditor and top election official for Weber County, Utah, especially after the past two years.
But Hatch told a group gathered on Capitol Hill for a Friday morning roundtable on paper supply issues that this year “we’re a little paranoid.”
Election officials, paper and printing industry leaders and voting equipment suppliers who attended the Capitol Hill roundtable said the electoral system was unprepared for a shortage. of paper needed to print ballots, voter registration forms, envelopes, voter guides and even “I voted” stickers.
“The paper shortage is acute,” said Ford Bowers, president and CEO of the Printing United Alliance, adding that it “will not be solved on its own.”
“Costs are a huge issue.”
The American electoral system experienced a rapid return to paper after Russia’s 2016 campaign of election interference and high-profile malfunctions of electronic voting machines highlighted the vulnerabilities of voting equipment that does not produce a paper trail.
A record 92% of U.S. voters live in jurisdictions that vote primarily on paper ballots, according to the non-profit group Verified Voting, compared to 72% of voters who voted on paper at midterm in 2018 and 50% in 2006.
Election security experts agree that voter-verified paper ballots are the gold standard. But it all hinges on a steady supply of paper – and not just any printer paper, but a ballot of specific dimensions and thickness.
Bowers explained that widespread closures of paper millswhich have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemichave “limited the amount of paper available” while the pandemic-spurred shift to e-commerce rapidly increased the demand for certain types of paper.
“Once you take a mill offline,” he said, “you don’t put it back up.”
Continuing shortage of truck drivers needed to transport all kinds of goods, including paper, further complicate complex supply chain issues.
Brad Thompson, who runs a printing company in Michigan and is a paper supplier for county clerks in the state, said he placed his purchase orders much earlier than normal, but was unsure when the paper would appear in its warehouse – or how much it will cost when it arrives.
These costs are passed on to election officials, many of whom are already underfunded and understaffed.
“Cost is a huge issue for us,” said Tammy Smith, election administrator for Wilson County, Tennessee. And in smaller counties and jurisdictions in particular, “budgets are very low.”
Redistricting and new electoral laws complicate paper compression.
The once-a-decade redistricting process also throws a wrench in the process, with ongoing lawsuits leaving district lines shaky and election officials unable to finalize and print ballots.
Wilson said she “tends to order early” when it comes to paper supplies. But this year it has been delayed in printing and sending wallet-size cards to voters with their registration information because of the redistricting process.
“We now have a primary in June, so that pushes the timelines a bit further, which might help,” Davis, the senior member of the House Administration Committee, said of his own primary in the United States. Illinois.
“However, the products could have been cheaper for a March primary for our local election officials. The cost may have increased,” he said. “So it has its upsides, it has its downsides. But the bottom line is…I’m afraid many election officials aren’t aware there’s a possible shortage.”
Commissioner Christy McCormick of the Election Assistance Commission said election officials can adapt to paper shortages by ordering supplies well in advance and being flexible with envelope materials and design.
But stocking up on supplies isn’t helping officials in the many states who passed the voting and election reviews in 2021 that require new voter registration or ballot application forms.
Georgia’s 2021 election omnibus bill, for example, added a requirement for voters to submit identifying information when requesting an absentee ballot and also requires ballots to be printed on more expensive special security paper.
This means that “the stockpile does not meet the needs of election officials who are stocking up” on outdated and no longer usable forms, said Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of Electoral Officers. State.
Already this year, paper shortages have exacerbated many of the primary election problems in Texas, where election officials and voters struggled with new rule in a bill passed by the legislature in 2021 that requires voters to provide identifying information with their absentee ballot application forms and ballot return envelopes.
The office of the Secretary of State in Texas, which does not allow most voters to register to vote or apply for absentee ballots online, rushed to print enough new forms of registration and new mail-in ballot application forms on time.
“All the old forms, which some people have accumulated, including the League of Women Voters and many campaigns and many political operatives, should be thrown away. They’re no good,” former Travis County Clerk said. . Dana DeBeauvoir explained mail-in ballot application forms in January.
The primaries’ problems, Cohen said, “are going to exacerbate any problems for November.”
States have their own deadlines for finalizing ballot designs, and federal law requires officials to mail ballots to foreign and military voters 45 days before a federal election, including upcoming midterms, creating the perfect storm for an impending supply crisis.
“Elections are urgent,” McCormick said. “Time is one thing we cannot recover.”