Modern Life

Election 2020: How print providers and younger poll workers are stepping up

Print technology and a new wave of poll workers are helping millions of voters in the United States cast their ballots in this unprecedented election year.

By Arnesa A. Howell — October 22, 2020

As Election Day 2020 approaches, voters in the United States are wrangling with a flurry of questions, beyond what’s on their ballots: Will my mail-in ballot be delivered in time to be counted? What is the most secure way to cast my absentee ballot? Will I have to wait hours in line if I want to vote in person? 

With concerns about COVID-19 top of mind, record numbers have turned out for early voting and demand for mail-in ballots surged to an all-time high. More than 25 states have expanded ways for people to cast their votes to make the process easier and more accessible, and an estimated 80 million people could be voting by mail in this election — twice as many as in 2016. At the same time, headlines about ballot security, accuracy, and unproven claims of fraud have made an already unprecedented election feel even more anxiety-inducing.

To meet the demand, print provider Runbeck Election Services has spent the past few months running a steady stream of more than 60,000 mail-in ballots every hour on four HP digital presses inside its 90,000-square foot facility in Phoenix, Arizona, with security measures at every step.

These presses have the capabilities to “accurately marry the front and back of the ballot perfectly,” using timing marks along the ballot’s edge so each vote is recorded properly, says Jeff Ellington, president and chief operating officer at Runbeck, which is supplying ballots to states and counties across the country. “If it’s even a fraction of an inch off, the ballot would not tabulate correctly.”

Runbeck is one example of how companies and nonpartisan advocacy organizations are taking action, using technology solutions and grassroots campaigns to ensure everyone who wants to vote has a voice this year and beyond. 

“Our job is to defend democracy,” says Ellington. “Up until this year, that felt like a nice tagline. This year, it means a lot more.”

The most important print job of the year

In early March, Ellington and his team at Runbeck realized that their “busy season” this election year would be different from any other. So, the company ramped up production, ordering 6,500 miles of paper for November, leasing 40,000 square feet of space beyond its 90,000-square-foot facility, and running operations 24/7 some weeks on its three web-based HP PageWide inkjet presses and one HP Indigo digital press, each able to print approximately 10 million ballots. 

“In 2016, we printed about 4 million mail-in ballots,” Ellington says. “This year it’s going to be around 15 or 16 million.” Add in ballots for in-person voting, and that number rises to 35 million. 

To help maintain data integrity, an HP press stamps each ballot with a barcode to indicate a unique style — some large counties might have 2,000 different ballot styles, varying based on the candidates and propositions being voted on in each voter’s location. “Everything is encrypted across all of our data processes,” Ellington says. “It’s the highest level of security we can provide.”

Voter putting mail-in ballot in mailbox for the 2020 presidential election.

Chad Hunt

This year, millions of voters are equipped with printed ballots to make their voices heard.

Next, the ballots are placed in inserting machines that package election materials into a single envelope along with voting instructions, the return envelope, and an “I Voted” sticker. The barcodes are scanned and checked against a database of information provided by specific counties, and then mailed out to voters. Those barcodes are checked again after voters mail in their ballots, and voter signatures on the return envelopes are matched to the signature on each voter’s registration file.

“Democracy is fragile,” Ellington says. “At the end of the day, we may be printing PDFs, but it’s important that people understand the integrity behind everything that happens.” 

Combining digital and print to reimagine the voting experience 

In Mississippi, the nonprofit organization VotingWorks is piloting a paper-based system in which voters who choose to vote absentee in advance of election day can go to their local courthouse and ask for their ballot to be printed and counted — all on demand. Counties also print on-demand ballots for voters who request absentee ballots by mail. 

The system has the potential to make a huge difference for jurisdictions with limited resources to prepare for unpredictable demand for absentee ballots. With support from HP, VotingWorks has provided laptops and printers to support on-demand absentee voting in eight counties across Mississippi.

“Instead of spending 20, 30, or 40 cents a ballot, counties can print these for a couple cents a ballot and only print what they need,” says Matt Pasternack, president and co-founder of VotingWorks.

“Voting is the key to democracy. We want to make sure as many people as possible take advantage of it and know what to do to make their voices heard.”

—Robert Brandon, president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center

The nonprofit has also piloted a new voting machine system, first used in rural Choctaw County, Mississippi. “Most of the counties in Mississippi were using incredibly old machines, where the vote is stored inside and the voter doesn’t get any paper proof,” Pasternack explains. As an alternative, VotingWorks has developed a system that combines electronic ballot marking with printed ballots so voters can review them for accuracy before dropping them in the ballot box. 

“To vote on a paper ballot is the gold standard of security for elections,” says Pasternack, noting VotingWorks hopes to expand to other states starting in 2021. “Voters need to know that when they vote, their vote is secure, and it will be accurately tabulated.”

Rallying younger poll workers to fill the gap

With the pandemic keeping older volunteers at home, advocacy groups like the nonpartisan Power the Polls have emerged to address a massive shortage of poll workers by stepping up recruitment of younger people to staff polling locations. 

“Many states had to cut back severely on the number of polling sites because they didn’t have the poll workers they expected to have,” says Robert Brandon, president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center, a nonpartisan voting advocacy organization and founding partner of the initiative. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, would have typically had 180 polling sites open during the primary — but had only five, he says.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, during the 2016 elections, there were more than 116,000 polling locations with nearly 920,000 poll workers. “Traditionally, it’s been a lot of older, white people,” says Brandon. Power the Polls aims to change that picture.

HP printer used by providers to print the 2020 presidential election voting ballots.

Courtesy of HP

One of the HP digital presses used to produce the 2020 presidential election voting ballots.

The collective of 150-plus nonprofit organizations and businesses including the NAACP, MTV, AFL-CIO, and the League of Women Voters has a goal of signing up a pool of younger, technologically savvy, bilingual poll volunteers who reflect the diversity of the people they’ll be helping to vote. 

In less than three months, the group surpassed its 250,000 recruitment goal to sign up more than 600,000 volunteers, almost 70% of whom are age 60 and under.

Jasmine Clay, 29, signed up in June to be a poll worker in Fairfax County, Virginia, after an eye-opening conversation with her mother, who volunteered as a poll worker in 2016. 

“She told me she wouldn’t be signing up this time because as the primary caregiver for my grandmother, who just turned 90, she has to be careful not to put her at risk,” says Clay, a development manager for a nonprofit. “So I started thinking, ‘OK, this is a great opportunity to honor my mother by taking her place and doing my civic duty.’ ”

As Election Day approaches, that kind of commitment from individuals and organizations across the country will be critical to making sure the election is fair, safe, and accessible.

“Voting is the key to democracy,” Brandon says. “We want to make sure as many people as possible take advantage of it and know what to do to make their voices heard.”


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