Vote by mail was a contentious necessity in 2020. Voters and poll workers worried about COVID-19 did not go to the polls, while ballot integrity concerns caused people to vote in person. Ultimately, more than 92.2 million ballots were requested by, or automatically mailed to, voters. The number will grow by 2024, providing an opportunity for firms with the systems and staff to produce high-quality work with zero tolerance for errors.
I have a personal stake in the integrity of voting by mail initiatives. As Milford, New Hampshire’s town moderator, I am responsible for our polling place. With its 13,301 registered voters, we are among the largest in the U.S. 2,874 voters used absentee ballots in November, 31% of the 9,259 ballots cast. With more than 125 volunteers and officials, we provided a safe, secure, and trustworthy election regardless of how people voted.
What You Need to Know
Voting by mail (VBM) has been used in the U.S. for 40 years. Globally, at least 17 countries enable some form of VBM. Despite its growth, VBM still raises concerns about fraud perpetrated by voters, election officials, political parties, and others. However, documented cases of VBM fraud are rare, as are printing and mailing errors.
Voting by mail is a method for participating in an election where ballots and related materials are mailed to registered voters who return their marked ballots either by mail or at a drop-off location. While nuances exist by state, VBM takes one of two forms. The ballots may be:
- Automatically mailed to all registered voters
- Mailed to voters who request them for a specific reason (also known as absentee voting) or mailed to voters who simply ask (“no excuse” absentee voting)
Additionally, an election official may hand absentee ballots to the voter. In any case, the voter subsequently returns their marked ballots either by mail or to a drop-off location.
Absentee voting enables every registered voter to cast their ballot no matter where they are on election day. These voters include military service members stationed away from home, business people traveling abroad, residents who winter in warmer climes, anyone physically unable to get to the polls, and so forth. The idea of sending registered voters their ballot without asking for one is a way for voters at home to mark their ballots without traveling to a polling place and waiting in line to cast the ballot. Given the time required to deliver ballots to voters, printing/mailing firms must accurately produce the VBM pieces and meet very tight deadlines required by federal and state statutes.
It will come as no surprise, given that all 50 states plus the U.S. territories engage in some form of vote by mail, that the VBM workflow varies by location. Every governing body thinks it employs the best practices to facilitate the process, prevent fraud, and ensure security. Denver’s VBM workflow is an excellent example of how the essential process works (figure 1).
Figure 1. Lifecycle of a Ballot, Denver CO
Source: City and County of Denver
A key element of Denver’s VBM process is open communication with its constituents. The lifecycle graphic enables everyone to understand the process, its complexity, and quality assurance practices.
Not unlike insurance, healthcare, legal, tax, and compliance mailings, VBM mailings typically include the following elements that are personalized (except for the ballot) and correctly matched:
- Outbound mail envelope
- Blank ballot page(s)
- Affidavit envelope to hold the marked ballot and for the voter to sign
- Instruction document (optional, if not printed on an envelope)
- Return mail envelope
VBM mailings are addressed based on voter lists provided by the local or regional jurisdiction. In some cases, the data indicates which ballot is sent to the recipient. The data must be securely transmitted to and verified by the vendor producing the mailing. Robust steps are taken to prevent hacking of data in-transit and on-site, with government agencies frequenting the vendor’s operations to determine whether the processes are strong enough to prevent vote fraud or security breaches.
Machine-readable quality assurance marks such as Q.R. codes used in the printing and inserting operations are added to the dataset, along with the USPS’ intelligent barcodes (IMb) on the envelopes. When in-house sorting equipment is not available or practical, firms will use software to presort the mailing to optimize postage discounts and minimize delivery time. The return mailing envelopes are often color-coded or otherwise identified by type to smooth processing at the polling location. For example, envelopes may identify the piece as being returned by a voter who resides overseas.
Firms with inkjet printing and in-house mail inserting operations are well suited to VBM production. Thayer Long, president of The Association for Print Technology (APTech), led a months-long effort leading up to the November elections that supported print/mail firms producing or considering VBM mail. Mr. Long advises newcomers to start slowly, not biting off more than you can chew. The idea is to get your feet wet in the next election cycle and then go after more business in subsequent elections. For most jurisdictions, that means producing small quantities of VBM mail for local elections in 2021 and 2023, working on local and state elections in 2022, and gearing up for the local, state, and national elections in 2024.
Vote by mail is identified with political elections. However, the private sector also conducts elections – think of union and corporate proxy votes or any decision by vote typically done in-person. LHS Associates has been producing VBM campaigns for unions, associations, and other groups with members nationwide for twenty years. You may find additional local or regional opportunities to test the VBM market while developing your data management, print, and inserting capabilities by supporting these small volume elections. LHS leveraged its VBM experience with private and local public elections across New England to land the 450,000 pieces presidential VBM mailing for the State of Vermont.
Vote by mail is not for the faint of heart. VBM requires the same level of mail piece integrity as transaction mail that includes confidential information. I managed Liberty Mutual Insurance Company’s printing and mailing operations for several years, where we produced 65 million mail pieces containing personally identifiable information (PII) annually. Every mail piece had to be correct and accounted for, with spoiled pieces and remakes tracked and reconciled. VBM has similar requirements.
Producing VBM mailings is a high-risk enterprise in that one problem, no matter how small, may call the results of an entire election into question. And with concerns that many people have about the very idea of VBM, a production issue in one local election may smear elections using VBM nationwide. Even when the impact remains local, a problem with one VBM mailing may taint your reputation.
But as LHS Associates’ president, Jeff Silvestro, says, “VBM is not easy, but it’s not different than what many of us do. It’s logistics, it’s data, it’s working with the post office. It’s all the things we’ve had to do” when producing high quality, confidential, and secure print and mail campaigns.
Despite the risk, printing and mailing companies nationwide with confidence in their systems and staff produce VBM programs. If you are considering VBM, be aware of the table stakes just to enter the market:
- Demonstrated ability to produce high quality, low-error transaction mail
- Secure data transfer, receipt, and storage
- Hardware and software that tracks every component in every mail piece throughout printing, insertion, sorting, and mailing
- Staff culture in which everyone, regardless of position, takes action to ensure every mailing is accurate and complete
Part two of this two-part series will be published next month, covering in more detail the systems and best practices necessary to produce VBM mailings successfully. In the meantime, if you produce VBM mailings today, strengthen your offering by remaining up-to-date on VBM developments in your region as the political class decides whether and how to expand voting by mail. If you consider the VBM market, begin your evaluation by assessing your existing customers’ document integrity requirements and your ability to meet their needs consistently.
In either scenario, bear in mind that the next public-sector elections – the next opportunities to acquire business and demonstrate your vote by mail capabilities – are less than a year away.
1 https://electproject.github.io/Early-Vote-2020G/index.html; Note the number of returned ballots typically runs about 65-75% of the number of ballots that were sent to voters.