Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Election Challenges Officials Are Facing Ahead of November

Issues ranging from severe paper shortages to cyber threats and disinformation are looming ahead of the 2022 elections, threatening voter confidence. Officials shared their concerns with members of the U.S. Senate May 19.

Closeup of a bubble on a voting ballot being filled in with a pen.
Secretaries of state are facing a variety of challenges as they work to keep elections running smoothly and securely. Election and civil rights experts testifying before the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee yesterday outlined hurdles ranging from a severe paper shortage to the perennial threats of disinformation and cyber attack.

A Looming Paper Shortage

Officials are facing a critical shortage of paper needed for election materials like ballots, mail-in vote envelopes, voter instruction materials and poll books, said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser for the Elections program of the Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation focused on protecting the democratic system.

This problem could significantly tangle election processes, said Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who urged federal officials to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel paper mills to prioritize election materials.

“This is a crisis that demands immediate attention and bipartisan action. It is not an exaggeration to say that if this situation is not handled, it could lead to a serious erosion in the confidence of our elections,” said Ardoin.

Ballots, in particular, can only be printed on a specialized kind of paper to ensure that scanners properly detect the voter’s selections, Patrick explained.

“We need a high quality of paper, because we need to make sure that it’s pristine paper. It doesn’t have filaments, it doesn’t have other things that can capture the light and in some way misrepresent a voter’s mark as an errant mark,” Patrick said.

Election officials typically purchase these materials from paper mills in the U.S. and Canada. Consumers’ rising use of e-commerce has created a surging demand for the corrugated paper used in packaging, however, and many mills have been enticed into switching over to producing this “more lucrative” offering, Patrick said. International customers struggling to fulfill paper needs from their traditional sources also have been turning to U.S. and Canadian mills, creating more demands on mills’ limited production capacities.

Election officials who haven’t managed to place orders well in advance may be challenged to get enough paper, and Patrick said many report that they are struggling to buy as much as they need, facing higher prices, receiving only partial orders or seeing their orders cancelled.

“In Louisiana alone, we had to contact every paper producer in North America — not just the United States — to ensure we will have the supplies we need,” Ardoin said.

The shortage could mean that election officials do not have the paper to reprint materials if they discover an error, Patrick said. And errors do happen: Lancaster County, Pa., reportedly resorted yesterday to hand-counting 22,000 mail-in and absentee ballots after finding their vendor printed the wrong barcode.

Paper may also be a security concern: Chris Krebs, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), has also previously urged polling places ensure their processes leave paper trails, so that the results can be audited. That could mean having residents mark votes on paper ballots or on electronic machines that then print paper records.

Equipment Funding

Getting equipment that creates those much-needed verifiable paper ballot trails has been challenging for some counties’ budgets too, said Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Leigh Chapman. The 2020 elections saw some counties rely on grants from nonprofits to afford such machines, as well as to afford equipment needed to support heavy use of mail-in voting, such as automatic-envelop openers and mail sorters.

Chapman argued that federal and state governments should take a greater role in covering counties’ election costs and ensure these funding streams are consistent, not one-off.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., pointed to the Sustaining Our Democracy Act that she and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., recently introduced. The act calls for the federal government to supply $20 billion over 10 years to support certain state and local election needs, such as upgrading election equipment and investing in cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity and Disinformation

Some secretaries of state are also looking for deeper cybersecurity support. The federal government shares threat intelligence with election officials, but Ardoin said that the information can go through a painfully long declassification process. By the time the intelligence reaches them, officials may have already read about the threats in the newspaper, he said.

Concerns about disinformation campaigns launched against voters remain high. Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, recalled a scheme that specifically targeted Black voters to discourage them from voting by mail in the 2020 elections.

Thousands of voters received robocalls from someone “appearing to sound as if she were an African American woman,” Hewitt recalled. The robocall falsely told residents that voting by mail would result in their information being handed over to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to force them to get vaccinations, as well handed over so that police and creditors could track them down over any outstanding warrants and debts, respectively.

The false claims were tailored to resonate.

“Think about fears in the Black community about police misconduct, about economic insecurity, about the Tuskegee experiment — [the perpetrators were] trying to get all of those pressure points,” Hewitt said.

Transparency, Support and Time

Election officials said they have a variety of security and confidence-building efforts at play.

Louisiana, for example, has secured a third party to monitor and mitigate any attacks to its website, and works to share information with local partners, Ardoin said.

Ardoin also promoted a Louisiana law requiring managed service providers (MSPs) to alert the state fusion center about any cyber incidents impacting a public-sector client, and about any ransomware payments made following such an incident.

Election officials in small counties often struggle against cyber threats, and often rely on a single person to handle a vast array of election-related needs. Asking these individuals to also study up on cybersecurity simply isn’t feasible, said Wesley Wilcox, supervisor of elections for Marion County, Fla. The state, however, provides several cyber navigators who can help local jurisdictions learn best practices, get support on security-related requests for proposals and tackle other areas.

Another important way of smoothing election processes is simply allocating plenty of time. Starting processing mail-in ballots weeks before election days allows officials to reach out to voters to correct any issues with signatures on their ballots, Wilcox said. Patrick said she’s never found a case of a willfully fraudulent signature, but has discovered many instances in which voters’ ways of signing their names naturally changed over the years or in which circumstances like a recent stroke or wearing a cast impacted how they signed.

Wilcox also said that starting counting mail-in ballots early also puts officials in a better position to announce tallies on election day, which can infuse greater confidence in the results.

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.
From Our Partners