More Americans than ever before are expected to vote by mail this year because of concerns about the coronavirus. One challenge facing election officials now: how to print and mail the millions of ballots voters are expected to request in the coming months. Nearly a quarter of the 136 million presidential ballots cast 2016 were mailed in. That number could easily grow to well over half this year, especially if the health risk continues. With many states expected to expand mail-in voting for November, experts warn that existing ballot printing services could quickly become overwhelmed. One of of the biggest such vendors in the country is Runbeck Election Services. The company’s 90,000-square-foot facility in Phoenix, Ariz., is already bustling, and things are expected to get a lot busier soon. “This year we are going to mail probably around 40 to 50 million pieces. We’ll print probably close to 80 million, up to 100 million pieces when you count inserts,” said Jeff Ellington, the company’s president and chief operating officer. He gave NPR a virtual tour of the facility via FaceTime because pandemic travel restrictions prevented an in-person visit. Ellington explained that getting ballots to the right voters is a complicated, multi-step process. States need to decide what their ballots will look like and to get approval from the U.S. Postal Service for the design of the envelopes. After those envelopes are secured, companies like Runbeck step in.
Hawaii County Clerk Jon Henricks told state legislators Wednesday that the county will have a high-speed ballot sorting machine by February, which he said will give Hawaii Island elections workers “plenty of time” to prepare for the new voting-by-mail system that will be in place for the 2020 primary and general elections. “It’s a very good machine. We had staff come to view the City and County of Honolulu’s machine, and they were sold on it,” Henricks said during a joint informational briefing of the state Senate and House Judiciary committees in Honolulu. “They’re essential, I believe, when you move to voting by mail because of the number of ballots.” The vote-by-mail law, passed by the Legislature and signed June 25 by Gov. David Ige, is aimed at improving voter participation and ballot security. Officials also think the new system will save money in the long run. “We wrote this bill to expand voting hours and access, and make it easier for everyone to vote. We hope to see voter participation rise this coming election,” said Rep. Chris Lee, an Oahu Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.