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Why States Might Have A Hard Time Preparing For Mail-In Voting


It's expected to be a record year for voting by mail because of concerns about the coronavirus. And election officials are rushing to prepare. It's a major change, and for many states, it requires finding someone to print and mail out all those ballots. NPR's Pam Fessler paid a virtual visit to one such vendor in Arizona to check it out.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: In a 90,000-square-foot facility south of the Phoenix Airport, people are already working around the clock. And they're about to get a lot busier.

JEFF ELLINGTON: This year, we are going to mail probably around 40 to 50 million pieces.

FESSLER: Jeff Ellington is president and COO of Runbeck Election Services, one of the nation's biggest ballot printing and mailing firms. I had planned to visit in person, but the same pandemic that's making this place so busy prevented that. So Ellington's doing his best to via FaceTime to give me a tour.

ELLINGTON: So I'm on the production floor looking at one of our 8-feet printing presses. And it takes a roll of paper that starts out at a thousand pounds and then it goes through the machine, gets printed and then gets trimmed to size.

FESSLER: He shows me stacks of massive paper rolls that will eventually become ballots for millions of American voters. On this day, the company's preparing mailings for Iowa, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. The latter's ballots are in the process of being folded and sent out for the state's June 9 primary, which was delayed from March due to the pandemic.

ELLINGTON: So it's a little bit louder over here, but I'll show you one of the folders.

FESSLER: The ballots whip through the machine and emerge in neat stacks, which workers load into plastic bins to be taken over to another machine called an inserter.

ELLINGTON: I'll turn the camera around again and you'll see the ballots being loaded, going down a conveyor belt and then inserted into an envelope.

FESSLER: This is where things get complicated. Each ballot has a barcode on it that tells the machine exactly what kind of ballot it is and determines which voter should get it in the mail. The ballot's inserted, along with the instructions and, in this case, an I Voted sticker into a special envelope.

ELLINGTON: And then your name and address would be printed on the envelope once that process is complete.

FESSLER: Wow. So that one machine builds the whole packet, essentially.


FESSLER: Runbeck already has five of these inserter machines and has ordered 11 more. Even so, the company's warning states they better decide soon what they plan to do for November or they could find themselves out of luck.


KEVIN RUNBECK: Decision-making needs to be right now.

FESSLER: The day before, company CEO Kevin Runbeck appeared at a virtual hearing before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission on the challenges of holding an election during a pandemic.


RUNBECK: We cannot gear up, we cannot build equipment fast enough if you wait until July to place your orders.

FESSLER: Kim Wyman, the secretary of state for Washington, a state with a long history of mail-in voting, also appeared. She had similar warnings as states considered whether to expand absentee voting because so many people are nervous about going to the polls.


KIM WYMAN: They're going to need high-speed envelopes orders. They're going to need tabulation equipment that can actually count ballots in a faster manner.

FESSLER: And the list goes on and on.


WYMAN: It's going to be a heavy lift. And if it's not rolled out properly, we will lose public confidence in the results of the election.

FESSLER: Some states, like Wisconsin and Ohio, have already run into glitches conducting largely vote-by-mail primaries. Back in Phoenix, Jeff Ellington is worried, too. Even tripling the company's capacity this year isn't enough.

ELLINGTON: There's approximately 200 million registered voters in the country. And we will have the capacity to do approximately 20 million.

FESSLER: Or only about 10%. Not everyone will vote by mail, of course, and some election offices will handle the mailing and printing of ballots on their own. Still, it's a big gap to fill with only six months to go.

Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.

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