Here’s a look at how mail-in ballots are made in Arizona
PHOENIX — On Wednesday, ballots will be mailed out in Arizona and voters will begin filling in those customary bubbles.
For Phoenix-based Runbeck Election Services, creating those ballots is a long, complex process that starts more than a year before the election.
“We started, at Runbeck, planning for the 2022 elections in August of 2021,” President and CEO Jeff Ellington said.
He added there are a lot of moving parts to account for.
“We have to order envelopes, paper for the ballots to be printed, the ‘I Voted’ stickers, we have to get the instruction booklets printed,” he explained.
Runbeck’s facility can produce between one and one-and-a-half million mail packets a day for 76 counties around the country.
“We’re one of the largest in the industry,” Ellington said. “To put it in perspective, we mailed about 16-17 million ballots in 2020, our next closest competitor in the East dropped off to maybe two million.”
How are those ballots actually created? Runbeck Vice President of Operations Bryan Dandurand explained it all starts when the counties put in an order.
“They’ll send us a list of voters that live inside their county and their addresses, and obviously what type of ballot they should receive,” he said. “We’ll print a ballot for every individual voter that’s in that request file.”
A complex series of machinery then turns massive rolls of paper into the ballot you’ll fill out.
“We print those ballots, we fold them, and then we bring them to our inserting machine,” Dandurand continued. “That’s where we take the ballot and any other informational content going inside that ballot packet, and we put it into the envelope.”
Along the way, technology ensures the process goes smoothly.
“There are barcodes that are reading the person’s voter ID to identify that this person should receive a particular precinct or ballot style,” Dandurand explained. “There are cameras that will verify the correct ballot was put into that packet.”
Then the ballots are prepared to be sent to mailboxes across the country. Dandurand said they have a role in that shipping process too.
“[We sort] it out by zip code, to get the best qualifications at the USPS and provide the best savings to the counties as far as postage rates go.”
At the heart of every ballot is something that typically goes unnoticed: the paper it’s made out of. However, in the wake of the 2020 election, a conspiracy theory spread that some Arizona ballots contained bamboo fibers and may have come from China.
Besides the efforts they take to make sure each person gets only one ballot and no others are introduced from the outside, Dandurand said there’s no evidence for those claims.
“It was kind of funny when we heard that ‘there are fibers in the paper, there are bamboo elements in the paper,’” he recounted. “None of that is true, the paper we bought is certified by our paper vendor as a clean and clear paper.”
Ellington said ballots need to be made of a specific type of paper, and that decision isn’t make by producers like them.
“We get all of our paper out of North America,” he said. “We get some paper out of a mill in Canada, but the rest comes out of mills here in the U.S. for ballots.”
“The tabulation vendor dictates that paper type.”
There’s been a spotlight on election security in recent years, and Dandurand stressed it’s especially important to the ballot production process.
“We have video cameras throughout the facility, we have security here 24/7, we’re all behind a closed, locked gate,” he said. “We invite our counties to come out here… to send members of their workforce out here to watch the process.”
Dandurand said staffing also presents a challenge, in part because of how unique the job is.
“It’s very difficult to find people that have had the work experience,” he explained. “So what we do is look for people with the right attitude and the right aptitude, and we train them to do a specific job.”
He added the job of producing the ballots sent to counties across the country requires a specific type of person.
“It’s a tough job for the people on the floor. They’ll work 12 to 13 hours days for 7 to 8 weeks straight,” Dandurand said. “There’s no break in the process because the ballots have got to get mailed… so it’s a lot of work for these people.”
However, he stressed the process of producing mail-in ballots wouldn’t be possible without Runbeck’s employees.
“We have a lot of very passionate people on the floor who really care about what they do,” he said. “It’s exciting to work with them.”