By Cassandra Balentine
While the integrity of ballot voting is always a concern, this year the spotlight is on increased reliance on voting by mail in the presidential election as many are hesitant to physically go to the polls due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, both equipment and software providers are on the case, offering end-to-end automation for mail-in ballot printing.
The Ballot Production Process
There are many considerations for ballot printing, specific to both in-person polling stations and mail-in ballots.
Ballots printed for the polls are generally produced using digital or analog technologies. “Voting authorities forecast the number of voters that will be required for a specific polling location. The ballots are then ordered and produced either in house or via an outside print service provider (PSP) and are delivered to the polling location. As these are essentially a specialized form, there is no to low variation in ballots created for each polling location. Once the voter has made their candidate selections, the ballot is submitted for tabulation,” shares Rick Becerra, VP, product management, BlueCrest.
There are generally some additional materials for mail-in ballots including voting instructions, return envelopes, and other designated jurisdiction content. Becerra says this content may also be versioned to match the language of the specific mail-in voter.
“The mail package is designed to enable the voter to prepare their ballot and return it via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to the appropriate voting authority. By its very nature, mail-in ballot production has a higher degree of variability and complexity and providers have increasingly turned to inkjet digital printing systems for the production of these ballots. It’s critical that the printing and mailing processes utilize secure tracking and auditing data collection to ensure accountability and accuracy,” explains Becerra.
In addition to 100 percent correctness, Aron Allenson, product manager, 520 systems and customer success manager, strategic accounts, Screen Americas, points out that clarity and contrast are factors that affect legibility for both the voter and a scanning system. Ballot geometry should also be considered. “The vote counting systems that feed, scan, and record ballots rely on precise registration between the reference edges of the final size piece and the ballot selection mechanisms,” he shares.
Each municipality has rules on how a vote is recorded and counted, but not all jurisdictions do it the same way.
Becerra says any PSP or vendor supplying printed ballots are required to be certified by the state. “This process requires printed samples to be provided to the tabulator/scanning vendors to ensure that the printed ballots meet specific requirements to eliminate issues during the tabulation/scanning process for an election. For mail-in ballots there is also an increasing number of regulations that require delivery and voter response tracking.”
Challenges of Ballot Production
Document and data integrity is essential for mail-in ballot printing.
Incorrect file preparation for printing, jeopardized ballot creation, duplicate voter ballots, incorrect ballot content and address print, or non-compliance to postal induction for outgoing and incoming requirements are concerns. “Not having a closed loop, end-to-end high-integrity solution that provides full control of the overall process and not using high integrity printers, inserters, and sorters can result in potential challenges in ensuring the accuracy of the process,” warns Becerra.
Allenson says security and precise production are two important elements of ballot printing and mailing. “It doesn’t take much to imagine the deceit that could be perpetrated should someone misappropriate a quantity of ballots. Additionally, if a ballot is not well executed in printing or finishing, voters and vote counting machines will have difficulty in use and processing,” he shares.
Josh McCaully, director of solutions architecture, Grayhair Software, says 100 percent mailing of the constituents’ addresses is required, so there must be processes in place to identify pieces that are damaged or missed during production or not produced at all. “Integrity is incredibly important, as there is a need to ensure that the right pieces are put into the corresponding envelope. This can be addressed with advanced software systems and process controls to document the creation and management of each mailpiece coupled with robust hardware tools to communicate with the system software that is helping to ensure proper outputs and to check that all documents are generated correctly.”
One major concern regarding mail-in voting is the risk of voter fraud. Print and mail professionals are dedicated to mitigating this risk.
Allenson is beginning to see additional security measures enacted at the behest of the government agencies responsible for ballots. “Some of the security features are paper based, others are print based, still others have to do with packaging and ballot delivery,” he offers.
McCaully believes that the first step to reducing the risk of voter fraud is to ensure that election address databases are current and up to date.
“According to the Census data, nearly 31 million people moved in the U.S. in 2019. That’s 9.8 percent of all Americans moving every year. Election databases need to be updated periodically to ensure accuracy. By utilizing tools from the USPS and proprietary address databases, election officials can be sure that ballots are getting to the right person at the right address.”
Becerra says the key is ensuring the process includes integrity, security, and controls. “Security measures are paramount, which include web security, encryption, and NIST compliance. The process validates that one and only one ballot is produced and mailed for every voter that requested one. That ballot is prepared dynamically based on the request and confirmed through all processing steps—printing, inserting, and outbound sorting.
Additionally, that ballot is tracked through the USPS to confirm delivery and immediately identify any delivery exceptions. The ballots returned by voters are also tracked and matched one to one for every requested and successfully produced and delivered ballot. When the ballots are received, the signature is validated and the ballot process is marked as complete. Only those ballots that have be successfully confirmed at each step of the process will be tabulated. Duplicates will be discarded.”
McCaully adds that the way ballots are sent to constituents and received back is created to reduce fraud. He explains that voters requesting an absentee or mail-in ballot in states that allow it must request the ballot from their local election authority by giving their name and address. Local election authorities will then send a ballot to the voter at their home address. The ballot comes in a security envelope that hides the party and vote choice in addition to another envelope into which the sealed ballot is placed. The voter will sign the outside of the second envelope to certify that they are a registered voter. Upon receipt of the mailed ballot, local election officials check the name, address, and signature of the voter. After those are certified, the sealed ballot is removed from the outside envelope containing the voter’s signature. Still, the voter’s preferences remain confidential. The ballots are not opened or counted until Election Day.
Getting it Right
Providers that offer ballot printing and mailing services require reliable document integrity processes.
For any PSP offering mailing services, including ballots, ensuring the right recipient gets the right mail is always concern. “There are precautions that can be taken but at the end of the day, we are reliant on a database being correct and a mail carrier putting the right mail in the right mail box. Of course, mail delivery verification processes can be used, but that will take adoption/approval by the municipality or government,” shares Allenson.
It’s expected that mailers will use USPS Address Validation and Move Update processes to ensure they are mailing the ballot piece to the right location. “However, a lot of counties do not allow address changes to be made based on the regulations of the state, so there could be cases that a ballot is being mailed to an old location or an invalid address,” says McCaully.
However, organizations like GrayHair help with proprietary address databases, which are used in conjunction with USPS tools to ensure addresses are correct and compliant. Additionally, ballot tracking software can be utilized to allow election officials to confirm whether or not the ballot was delivered to the right address.
Becerra points out that fail safes are incorporated into the process. For instance, voter registration systems provide the ID of the ballots—as ballots can vary significantly from voter to voter—and the delivery information for voters that have requested mail-in ballots. “The address information is validated and unique Intelligent Mail barcodes (IMb) are assigned to facilitate postal processing and delivery confirmation. The intelligent inserters print the matching address on the outgoing envelope including the IMb. The ballot itself is scanned before insertion and address printing to confirm the ballot matches with the intended recipient. The address information is encoded in the IMb to automate the routing and delivery process. Using the Unique Tracking number in the IMb Delivery to the intended address is confirmed or delivery exception information is provided—i.e. Forwarded or Unable to deliver with reason code.”
Assurances regarding security are dependent on the election services provider, as election officials have specific jurisdiction requirements and print certification. “You must have the right technology provider, experienced in voting regulations. This includes ballot design, ballots and insert content, barcode print grade levels, and quality. The printer vendor is an important part of ensuring that the right cameras and sensor technology is utilized for auditing, tracking, and quality verification during production. Ballot printing goes beyond just a printing press for the content, printing technology is also utilized in the ballot assembly process printing the proper voter address, specific voter identification, and postal IMb for postal compliance. Ensuring the right auditing trail, production count, tracking, and secure technology is paramount,” offers Becerra.
Ballot printers as well as other printers printing secure work need end-to-end process control and documentation. “They need to conduct internal and external audits looking for weaknesses so that they can bolster those deficiencies and improve their product and production,” suggests Allenson.
Ballot Printing Services
High-speed production inkjet systems are ideal for ballot printing, as they offer high speeds, low costs, and variability capabilities.
Most modern ballots require some level of variable data capabilities for security features such as unique numbers. “That eliminates non-digital forms of printing unless an inline numbering machine can be used,” says Allenson.
He adds the quantity needed and turnaround times/service-level agreements for many of the ballots are beyond what can be handled by even several toner-based digital systems. “That leaves high-speed inkjet. Of course thousands of ballots are printed every year on non-inkjet equipment but security and color requirements are increasing. Screen is seeing significant uptick in ballot printers adoption of high-speed, roll fed inkjet systems. No matter the printing method, process control is going to be the key to successful ballot printing,” offers Allenson.
Becerra agrees, noting that digital inkjet printing is well suited for ballot production. “The speed, high-quality, and 100 percent variability lends itself to producing polling ballots or mail-in ballots. In either case, it is also critical that the printing system is able to provide consistent, defect-free output, and integrate with workflow to provide accurate tracking and accounting of each ballot or mail package produced. When the speed and reliability of automated tabulation and the integrity of an overall election is dependent on print quality, ‘good enough,’ is not enough,” he cautions.
Tim Murphy, president, iJetColor by Printware, sees digital printing as the best way to fulfill the need for on demand absentee/mail-in ballots due to its quick turnaround time, variable data capabilities for addressing and unique barcodes, and easy way of handling hard-to-print envelopes. He adds that digital presses also add four-color capabilities pertinent to many states’ ballot envelope design requirements, and in some cases print full color, full-bleed, personalized envelopes that dramatically increase open rates. “Managing a low cost-per-piece for maximizing profits while winning state or county bids can certainly be a challenge when using digital printing as opposed to traditional offset due to the high consumable costs or click charges associated with toner. Printers can avoid this challenge by utilizing inkjet technology instead, which does not require a click charge and has one third the variable costs to print full color ready to mail envelopes.”
While anyone can offer election services for ballot printing, Becerra says not all may qualify. First, printing equipment must adhere to postal domestic mail manual regulation, which call for specific grade levels in barcode quality, and address characteristics. It’s imperative that the printing system is able to maintain defect-free output to ensure no extraneous marks impact the scanning of the returned ballot.
Avoiding the Polls
Due to the coronavirus, the ability to vote by mail is appealing to many.
“The COVID-19 condition has driven an increase in mail-in ballot activities across our nation. From what we are seeing, printer vendors are making plans to purchase equipment to increase capacity to handle the projected increase demand for mail ballots,” says Becerra.
McCaully believes that if counties allow absentee ballots or mail-in voting then people will opt for that, if possible, to avoid being in crowds. “This will be especially true in areas that have had major voting issues where they were standing in lines for hours at polling locations,” he note.
“Today, we are seeing some printers make significant investments into their current infrastructure to get involved in the Vote By Mail program. Additionally, depending on the type of mail service provider, printer, or mailer, it could be a different workflow/process that is involved compared to the standard business,” says McCaully.
Allenson points out that ballot printers using high-speed, roll-fed inkjet frequently already have expertise in mailing. If necessary, most are capable of mailing ballots or absentee type ballots to voters.
Russell Carter, director of marketing and product development, Martin Yale, expects to see a substantial influx of mail-in ballots throughout this voting season. “One often overlooked obstacle of mail-in ballots is the time and effort required to open each ballot and register each vote.” To streamline this process, Martin Yale has put together a mail-in ballot equipment package that consists of an industrial ballot opener and paper folder.
Elections present revenue opportunities for print and mail providers. It is critical that those involved in ballot printing have an eye for quality and compliance to uphold the integrity of the U.S. election processes.
Sep2020, DPS Magazine