The vote-by-mail issue among state Republicans and Democrats has a new concern – a worldwide paper shortage that could cause disruption to the May primary.
Election officials across the country are warning that a shortage of paper for ballots, envelopes and other voting materials could create problems.
Typically, a higher quality paper, such as 80-pound opaque, is required for ballots. As a point of reference, office paper is usually 20 lb.
Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser with the Democracy Fund, and others brought the issue to light at last weekend’s National Association of Counties meeting in D.C. She told Route-Fifty.com “we have a situation where we have this high-quality ballot paper stock that we need for things ranging from voter registration forms, envelopes, provisional ballot forms, applications for ballots and even something as simple as a voter identification card.”
Paper mills began cutting back production due to labor shortages and reduced paper demand during the turmoil of 2020. Many mills converted production lines from paper to corrugated cardboard for boxes and paperboard for packaging. Now, the market shifted much faster than the industry could accommodate, causing mills to have difficulties meeting the increased demand for products.
“This dire global paper shortage coming off the pandemic effect is unique and unequaled,” says Erik Norman, senior vice president for sales and marketing for Bolger Printing. “People who’ve been purchasing paper for 30+ years haven’t seen it before.”
Patrick said big paper providers will be better positioned to fulfill orders than smaller print shops. “Large providers have some inventory,” she said. “Communities that are relying on the local print shop to order the envelopes or ballot paper may not be able to get them.”
Lead times for paper procurement have grown from two weeks to 12 weeks or more. Mills have also instituted an allocation system, using a printer’s purchase history as a barometer of how much paper will be supplied to them.
“We’ve ordered for the entire year,” said one Pennsylvania election official. “But we don’t know if our printer has been able to secure it all or just enough to cover us for the primary. They’re scrambling. Special order paper is impossible and even regular copy paper is hard to get. We feel the strain they are under. The response we get is that they’ll do their best but no guarantees.”
When will things subside and return to normal? Norman said “the general consensus is [it will end] probably into quarter three of [this] year.”
Budgets are also affected, as the price of paper has increased 25 percent this year. Even the global supply of ink has been disrupted. Printing inks use ethanol in their manufacture, but many ethanol shipments were diverted and used to make hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, especially during the early days of the pandemic.