Supply chain snags are making it harder for election officials to secure the raw materials they need to put on this year’s primaries: paper and envelopes.
Local governments are placing orders months in advance for the supplies they need to print and mail ballots and other materials to make sure they don’t get caught without voting materials. The strain, caused by the same global issues holding up everything from garage doors to computer chips, is stretching already-thin election budgets and making long-term planning more challenging.
So far, there hasn’t yet been a repeat of the situation in Texas, which had to limit the number of voter registration forms it gave to organizations ahead of the March primaries — but the 2022 midterms are just getting started, with a slew of statewide primaries approaching in May. Local officials are calling for more funding from Congress to make sure they can meet their needs, and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over voting issues, convened a roundtable on the “ballot paper supply shortage” on Friday with vendors, election officials and others.
“The supply chain is a huge issue right now,” said Dean Logan, the registrar of voters for Los Angeles County, the largest local elections jurisdiction in the country. “Just getting the paper supply and having that available for the printed materials for elections requires more of a lead time than we’ve ever seen before.”
Mary Clark, the clerk of Delta Township in Michigan and the president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said she placed an order for 72,000 envelopes in mid-January but still hasn’t received it. She said it usually takes about two weeks to fulfill orders.
“We were notified that [our printer] is only allowed to order paper twice a month,” she said, adding that her order cleaned out about a quarter of the printer’s stock. Clark said that her jurisdiction had the funds to place such a large order — she said she expected the envelopes to last her all year — but that she worried for those who didn’t have that kind of money on hand who may struggle to get supplies later in the year.
In this climate, special elections can be a serious imposition: Logan’s office is responsible for an early April special election to replace a member of the California state legislature who resigned and administering that election is “going to eat into our envelope supply and our paper supply.”
“It is forcing election administrators to work with their suppliers to order in advance,” he said, “and sometimes that means ordering in advance of the fiscal year that you would have budgeted for those materials.”
In Ohio, the drawn-out redistricting process has made things more complicated, said Paul Adams, director of the board of elections in Lorain County. Adams said they had to order forms by the beginning of January — as opposed to 90 days before the primary.
But it's unclear when the primary will be — or whether there will be two of them, stretching the stockpile of election materials officials have on hand. On Wednesday, Ohio’s state Supreme Court struck down its state legislative lines, and the congressional maps could face the same fate. That means the May 3 primary could be delayed or even split, with two different primaries (and twice the ballots) for different offices.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose sent a letter to Gov. Mike DeWine and legislative leaders saying it wasn’t feasible for election officials to include state House and state Senate races on the ballot for a May 3 primary. He also sent instructions to local officials noting that the General Assembly hasn’t yet changed the primary date, and they had to “continue to prepare for an election” on that day.
LaRose’s office asked counties in December to anticipate a supply chain problem and order paper in advance. LaRose, Ohio’s top elections official, said his office issued the guidance after he spoke with vendors who expressed concern about paper stocks at the time.
“People show up at their neighborhood polling location, and they spend 10 minutes there, and they get their ‘I Voted’ sticker,” said LaRose, who spoke to POLITICO before the ruling throwing out the state legislative maps. “They don’t stop to think about the huge logistical undertaking that it is every time we conduct an election.”
The supply chain problems facing election officials has also caught the attention of Congress.
“I think the issue that we’re facing today with the paper shortage, and election officials starting to become aware of it, is the fear of the unknown,” Davis said in an interview before his roundtable on election-related supply chain issues. “That’s why we are having the roundtable — so everybody knows more about the problem, and knows what we can do to fix it.”
At the roundtable, Jeff Ellington — the CEO of Runbeck Election Services, one of the largest election vendors in the country — said paper costs have gone up 40 percent in the last few years. But the problems stretch beyond just costs.
“It’s not just getting the paper, it is getting the truck drivers,” he said, saying he's had orders ready to deliver but no drivers to haul them.
Amy Cohen, the executive director of the National Association of State Elections Directors, noted that the spread-out primary calendar could be hiding the severity of the problem. “In November, everybody is going to need everything on essentially the same timeframe,” she said.
Some election officials say that the struggle securing paper products for the upcoming election highlights the need for more funding for election offices. But it isn’t clear how much help will be on the way.
Last week’s omnibus spending bill contained $75 million in funding through election grants, an ominous sign for officials who say much more investment is needed in future federal budgets. A group of Democratic secretaries of state has pushed for $20 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years — including $5 billion for the 2023 fiscal year, which 33 Democratic senators had also said that they supported.
Officials need funds from Congress “on a more regular schedule,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. Federal election funding over the last decade has often come in large, but sporadic spurts — and often with restrictions that prevent officials from using federal dollars for everyday operating expenses.
Election officials are now closely watching to see how much funding will be in President Joe Biden’s upcoming budget, and some groups have begun to lean on Congress to allocate more money.
The Election Infrastructure Initiative — a coalition that includes the Center for Secure and Modern Elections and the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a nonprofit that distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to local election officials in 2020 — is running a series of digital and print ads in newspapers in a handful of states urging members of Congress to invest more in elections. The groups are also promoting polling that argues there is broad public support for Congress to invest more “in election infrastructure.”
“I wouldn’t fight fires without a hose,” says a woman dressed as a firefighter in one Arizona ad, shared first with POLITICO. A narrator quickly follows up: “So why do we expect officials to run elections without the equipment they need?”
CTCL, which was funded by donations from Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan in 2020, has become a target for conservative lawmakers across the country, who have moved to ban private funding for election administration in some states.
Lawmakers are “saying, ‘you can’t take outside funding.’ Then our response is, ‘That’s fine, then fund us. Fund our needs,’” said Clark, the Michigan clerk. Clark said she used a CTCL grant last year to buy a ballot drop box and a security camera to watch that box.
Some local election officials don’t share the same concerns about supply chain problems as colleagues. Unlike in Texas, where officials had to scramble to update paperwork just a few months before their March 1 primary, several Georgia county election officials who spoke to POLITICO said they already have most of the updated paperwork and supplies they need after the state instituted new ID requirements for absentee voters.
Other than office supplies, W. Travis Doss Jr., the election supervisor in Richmond County, Ga. said he hasn’t had to order anything big for the primaries so far. Doss said he isn’t aware of any reason to proceed differently, especially since absentee ballots don’t need to be distributed until the end of April and the secretary of state handles most supplies.
“As of now, I haven’t had issues,” Doss said. “Now, whether two weeks from now when I do start, whether I have issues [then] — that'll be another situation.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misidentified W. Travis Doss Jr.