LAS VEGAS (AP) — Christy McCormick, vice chair of U.S. Election Assistance Commission, is hearing a similar message from officials who run elections nationwide: Supply shortages could bring delays as they order the paper and envelopes needed for upcoming primary and midterm elections.
The dilemma is the result of global supply chain issues coupled with an increase in demand for paper brought on by the pandemic, leaving ballot vendors worried about not getting their supply in time for the elections, the Las Vegas Sun reported.
“We are very concerned about this issue,” McCormick said in March during a U.S. House Administration Committee roundtable discussion with paper companies and election clerks to discuss how the paper shortage could affect elections.
Lawmakers in Nevada, which has almost 1.8 million active registered voters, passed a law last year directing election officials to send every registered voter a mail-in ballot, unless they choose to opt out. Some counties, such as Nye, are also pushing for 100% paper ballot elections. Both processes will require election officials to increase their paper supply to print ballots.
The Nevada Secretary of State's office has known about the shortage for months and has reached out to county officials to recommend that they confirm with their ballot suppliers that they will get their supply in time.
Joe Gloria, registrar of voters in the Las Vegas area, said he confirmed with the county's vendors that the paper shortage would not affect Clark County in printing ballots or sample ballots for the 2022 election.
The county, with more than 1.2 million active registered voters, has two different vendors: One is a local vendor that does sample ballots; the other provides mail-in ballots and the envelopes those ballots require, he said.
“The mail ballot vendor has a proactive policy of ordering in August for regular years,” Gloria said. “The local vendor . already ordered their paper, and as far as we know there will be no drastic price increase.”
Clark County notwithstanding, with primary elections already started nationally and the November midterms quickly approaching, the potential hiccup has caught the attention of federal lawmakers.
U.S. Rep Rodney Davis, R-Ill., of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over voting issues, brought together election officials and paper vendors to address the issue.
“Elections are a really paper-driven process, and I think that is an incredibly important thing to keep in mind,” said Amy Cohen, executive director of National Association of State Election Directors, during the roundtable. “We are already seeing the impacts of these supply chain challenges not just on ballots but on other kinds of paper.”
Shelly Jackson, deputy director of elections in Utah, told the group she wasn't as worried about her state's larger counties and jurisdictions. Rather, her concerns are with smaller offices that rely on small vendors.
“I think some of the counties are blissfully unaware,” Jackson said. “I just don't think there's a lot of awareness on this.”
Some Nevada counties report they also aren't facing a shortage. The Sun reported that clerks in Washoe, Humboldt, Nye, Lincoln and Lyon counties, said they have been proactive in ordering.
“Right now all of our vendors are on it, and we have what we need,” said Sandra Merlino, the Nye County clerk.
Bethany Drysdale, a communications manager for Washoe County, with more than 309,000 voters including Reno, wrote in an email “that we've communicated with our vendors and they are stocked and prepared for both the primary and general elections.”
COST MAY BE ISSUE TOO
Inland Press in Detroit has been producing election ballots for 30 years, company president Bradley Thompson said during the roundtable. Normally, Inland buys the paper for that year's election around March, but the company ordered its paper last August instead, to be sure it would arrive in time, he said.
“We think we have the commitments we need for the midterm elections,” Thompson said, noting he did not know how much the paper would cost. “It's not on my floor yet, so I still lose a little bit of sleep over that.”
Thompson said he has talked with envelope manufacturers, who are also facing election-related challenges.
“We're worried about them having enough envelopes to mail the ballots that we will produce for them,” Thompson said.
Jeff Ellington, chief executive officer of Runbeck Election Services based in Phoenix, said that until the paper arrived at his company, “there's a concern that it won't show up.” He has also had concerns about the labor shortage and finding enough truck drivers to deliver the ballots once they're ready.
While the paper shortage is a global problem, with newspapers in Sri Lanka, for instance, deciding to halt printing, many U.S. paper mills have closed over the last several years, exacerbating the supply problem for U.S. vendors.
Ford Bowers, president and CEO of PRINTING United Alliance, said during the roundtable that demand for paper products has increased in the country. For example, people ordered more items from Amazon, requiring more packaging material. Additionally, book production went up 13% last year, Bowers said.
“It's constrained the amount of paper that's available,” Bowers said.
Because many state legislatures have made changes to election forms recently, county clerks have no back stock or extra supply of forms available, Cohen said. She also had heard from states that have to delay sending their registration confirmation cards out to voters because they cannot get paper or as much paper as they would want.
“This is something that the states are paying very close attention to, working closely with their paper vendors,” Cohen said. The ripple effects of the paper shortage are expected to be long lasting, going into multiple election cycles. Some election officials and ballot suppliers aren't quite sure how things will look in the next couple of years.
“We don't think the demand is going to shift back now that we're getting out of COVID,” Bowers said at the roundtable. “We have somewhat of a long-term problem that we have to face.”
Roundtable participants emphasized the importance of election officials planning ahead and discussing their funding sources because of the increase in costs. They suggested solutions such as incentivizing paper manufacturers to prioritize election materials and to ensure that available supply will go toward the most necessary use.
“I don't know if there's a way that those of us who are doing this business can get some sort of certification and designation,” Thompson said, “and then can the government give us some sort of priority basis of getting the material we need to get us through?”
Davis plans to reconvene the group before the general election to continue its collaborative efforts. The Election Assistance Commission sent out communication to its Standards Board recently, encouraging members to “spread the word about the shortage.”