Politics

People want to vote by mail. The tech they need to do it can't keep up.

Lawsuits, plastic shortages and last-minute orders: The mail-in ballot tech sector is pulling crazy hours, but it faces too many problems to help everyone vote by mail.

People want to vote by mail. The tech they need to do it can't keep up.

Companies that make mail-in voting technology are facing unprecedented strain.

Photo: Tiffany Tertipes/Unsplash

Runbeck Election Services has been working on elections since the 1970s, but Jeff Ellington, the company's chief operating officer, had a feeling even before COVID-19 hit that 2020 would be a busier election than most. So, in early March, a week before most of the country began shutting down, he ordered an extra 11 mail-in ballot inserters, just to be safe.

He had no idea then how badly he'd need them.

Despite ramping up capacity and working overtime, mail-in ballot vendors like Runbeck have been struggling to meet the needs of every state and county knocking on their doors. Along with COVID-19-related disruption to their supply chains, companies that print and stuff ballots or make ballot inserters, openers, sorters, trackers and scanners have had to grapple with unprecedented demand for postal voting tech, buzzer-beater deadlines and a flurry of court cases deciding who will even be allowed to vote by mail and where and when.

Already, Runbeck has printed more ballots in the last two months than it did in all of 2016. In some cases, it's been forced to turn business away. Ellington said Runbeck, which stuffs ballots for the entire state of Georgia as well as counties in seven other states, had to pull out of a bid to work with the state of Maryland and didn't even bother bidding on contracts for New Jersey and South Carolina, which have both faced federal lawsuits over mail-in ballots. "The lawsuits and delays handcuff the counties from making a plan," Ellington said.

In fact, nearly every vendor Protocol spoke with reported having to turn business down because of demand and delays. "In many jurisdictions, it's likely too late [to procure machines] at this point," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice.

Needed: Envelopes and plastic

For Jim Foley, president of Agissar, part of the challenge of filling an influx of orders has been getting his hands on the raw materials to manufacture the machines. Agissar's mail-in ballot opening and stacking machines are equipped with acrylic bins that hold the ballots once they've been sorted. But in the early days of the pandemic, acrylic was hard to come by, Foley said, as demand for plastic sneeze guards skyrocketed due to COVID-19. That caused downstream delays for Foley's business. "They were busy supplying convenience stores," Foley said of his suppliers. "The raw material became a premium."

In addition to counties in Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado, where Agissar had existing contracts, Foley said his company was able to take on a number of new counties in Pennsylvania and Ohio before cutting off new customers earlier this month. As it stands, Agissar has until Oct. 30 to ship the machines, leaving just four days before Election Day to install the equipment and train election officials in how to use it.

"We're quite sensitive to the fact that some of these districts or counties have never [used these machines] before," Foley said. "If necessary, we're prepared to run the machines."

At Runbeck, the biggest challenge has been securing not acrylic, but envelopes. "It sounds silly to most people. It's just an envelope," Ellington said. "But for this fall, we had to order about 35 million envelopes."

Unlike paper, envelopes aren't something these companies can order in bulk and use later. Most counties design them specially for each election, rendering them useless once the election's over. That means Runbeck has been waiting for states and counties to finalize their plans before ordering envelopes, which its machines then stuff with ballots. But some of those clients, including Harris County, Texas, which encompasses Houston, are still fighting in court over whether they're allowed to mail ballots to all voters.

"It's impacting their ability to get us a ballot order so we can print and insert and mail those ballots," Ellington said. "Right now, they're at 240,000 [orders]. But there are 2.5 million registered voters in Houston. That number could radically jump."

Waiting for results

Where traditional election suppliers have had to turn them down, some counties have turned to mainstream tech companies, including Panasonic. In 2016, just two counties in Florida used Panasonic's high-speed scanners for signature verification. This year, its scanners are set to be used by 14 counties throughout the country, and Fred Scherman, Panasonic's national sales manager for document scanners, said the company could take on another 25 to 30 counties in the next few weeks.

"We've gotten a couple counties using our [scanners] just based on availability," Scherman said. By going with a non-election vendor like Panasonic, though, counties do lose some functionality. Panasonic's scanners can do automatic signature verification at a rate of 1,000 an hour, but they don't open and sort the ballots like other election-specific machines on the market. Nevertheless, "we've had a couple times where they inquire about our [scanners], look at the one that can do more and come back to inquire about a purchase," Scherman said.

While hardware manufacturers have faced some of the biggest logistical hurdles, software companies haven't been spared complications, either. BallotTrax sells a tool for tracking mail-in ballots throughout their lifespan, letting voters know when they've been mailed out, received and accepted. It also gives counties the ability to send reminders to voters and track where ballots are being sent and returned — and where they're not.

The company has gone from working with 20 counties in 2016 to 400 this election cycle. But it's also had to turn plenty of business away. Some states BallotTrax courted manage voter data at the county, or even municipality level, making it a challenge to collect and load all of that data into BallotTrax's system. Other counties had already printed envelopes without unique USPS bar codes on them, which are required for BallotTrax, or any other platform, to track a single envelope as it moves through the mail.

Even so, the BallotTrax team has been working overtime to onboard new clients and help them get the word out to voters about the tracking system. "We're all a little tired and in need of a haircut," said Steve Olson, president of BallotTrax, noting that the company's vice president of architecture recently reported 169 hours on his two-week time sheet.

Despite the challenges, some people in the industry are thankful for the unexpected burst of business in what otherwise would have been a challenging year. "That was the one bright spot in our business," said Mike Swift, CEO of Fluence Automation, whose machines open ballots and provide signature verification. Still, Swift says it was a "scramble" to fill last-minute orders in an off-year; ordinarily counties order this type of equipment between election cycles.

But all the hustling from vendors still might not be enough to avoid a chaotic election.

A combination of political infighting and a lack of funding from the federal government have prevented states and counties across the country from placing the orders they needed in time for Nov. 3. Recently, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, committed $300 million to help local governments prepare for Election Day, but given the tight timeline, much of that investment will now have to go toward hiring poll workers and buying the equipment needed to protect those workers in a pandemic. That means that in many cases, processing Americans' votes will take much longer than it would have if it were done by machine.

"The country will pull it off. What's going to be the biggest challenge is the misunderstanding of how elections work," Ellington said. "If it's a landslide one way or another, OK. But if it's as close as people are projecting, it's going to take a few weeks."

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