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Behind The Ballot: How Phoenix Produces Ballots For 22 States

Published: Monday, November 2, 2020 - 1:53pm
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MARK BRODIE: As of Friday, a record breaking 2.3 million Arizonans had already cast ballots ahead of Election Day. Thousands of voters are steering clear of polls to avoid catching or spreading coronavirus, and that means the makers of mail-in ballots have been very busy. Jeff Ellington is president and CEO at Runbeck Elections, the nation's largest maker of mail-in ballots, which happens to be based here in Phoenix. KJZZ's Heather van Blokland spoke with him about the process and is here to tell us more. Hi, Heather.

HEATHER VAN BLOKLAND: Good morning, Mark.

BRODIE: So that ballot that I dropped off at the county recorder's office a little while back, that was actually made here in town, right?

VAN BLOKLAND: Yeah. And your friends and your family members, if they live across the country as well, most likely theirs was made here. A fun fact: Pima County was actually the company's first client. Then it was Maricopa County. Now Runbeck prints and mails vote-by-mail and precinct ballots to 70 million voters across 22 states and Washington, D.C. And Jeff took a few minutes to speak with me about ballot making.

JEFF ELLINGTON: In Maricopa County, for example, there's about 2,000 different ballot styles. So if we lived across the street from each other, we very well may have a different ballot because maybe the last race is you're voting for a school board member and I'm voting for a dogcatcher on my side of the street. It's one of those things where it's not just the same ballot goes to everybody. So it had — all that has to be managed and coordinated that the right voter gets the right ballot and at the right time.

BRODIE: So, Heather, how do they actually make sure I get the right ballot at the right time?

VAN BLOKLAND: So it's really interesting. The company prints a ballot with certain races on it. It's called a ballot style. Then machines place all the ballots of that particular ballot style into individual mail packets. Now a barcode goes on the ballot envelope and that identifies the ballot style that's inside. Then a machine reads the code that tells the company who is the registered voter on the roll who needs that particular ballot mailed to them. And it gets addressed. Then along with the ballot, the voter gets an instruction booklet. And, of course, an "I voted sticker."

ELLINGTON: Yes. If you're looking at your ballot in the upper left-hand corner is a small QR code or 2D barcode — just a little square. That barcode represents your ballot style, and that loosely correlates to your precinct that you, that you would vote in. So again, back to my school board versus dogcatcher analogy.

VAN BLOKLAND: Now, to make a ballot, Runbeck starts with a large roll paper that typically weighs about 1,000 pounds. And Ellington said it sounds a lot like a newspaper being printed when they print these, and the paper is run through a printing press and out the other side will come approximately 20,000 ballots every 45 minutes. And Runbeck has three of those presses.

ELLINGTON: So we'll take a picture of that envelope. We'll also check the thickness to make sure there's nothing, you know, inadvertently, we didn't put two "I voted" stickers in or something like that. And then we will check all that off the data — off the database list, if you will. All that's done, of course, electronically. And then it will go to the post office to be delivered to the voter.

VAN BLOKLAND: And of course, the rest is up to you, Mark. Remember to vote.

BRODIE: I wouldn't mind getting two of those "I voted" stickers. I wish maybe they wouldn't check that part quite so closely. All right. That is KJZZ's Heather van Blokland. Heather, thank you.

VAN BLOKLAND: Thanks, Mark. 

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