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Another threat to 2022 elections: A lack of paper

Shortages have already affected voter registration efforts

Each year, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project asks the Texas Secretary of State for about 25,000 voter registration applications, which it distributes as part of the organization’s efforts to empower Latinos to participate in the democratic process.

This year, the organization received a surprising response: There weren’t enough applications to go around. A sweeping change to Texas voter laws meant that entirely new forms had to be printed. Supply-chain issues slowed that print job, prompting Texas to ration applications.

A lack of paper forms is no trivial issue in Texas, the nation’s most populous state without widely-available online voter registration. Only when updating their driver’s license or state ID information can Texans register online. Otherwise, prospective voters have to fill out paper voter registration applications, then mail them to their county elections offices.

Texas Secretary of State spokesperson Sam Taylor said the situation earlier this year “was sort of like the perfect storm.” The forms had to be re-printed to comply with SB1, the new state law. That wiped out the agency’s back stock of registration forms. Only one vendor bid on the job to print the new ones, and that company had staffing shortages on top of the supply chain issues. What might otherwise have taken two weeks dragged on for two months.

Texas now has sufficient voter registration forms, Taylor said. But the episode points to the disruptions that supply-chain issues pose everywhere Americans will cast a ballot, at the same time that candidates continue to push falsehoods about the 2020 elections and new state laws threaten voter access.

Elections run on paper. Ballots, ballot envelopes and voter registration forms all require it, and often specialized paper stock and production are needed.

Elections have become more paper-based in recent years, not less, driven by the surge in mail voting and efforts to ensure that elections are secure. Snarls in the supply chain have pushed up costs — by 40 percent, one industry executive told a congressional committee in March — and delayed production times for paper.

That’s raised alarms that local election offices won’t have the time, flexibility or money to respond to late changes this fall. Shortages may cause more problems for the general election, held on November 8 everywhere, than for primaries, which are spaced out. 

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Larger jurisdictions are placing paper orders early, experts and officials tell the Center for Public Integrity, but smaller jurisdictions may not be aware of the new reality.

“People think, ‘Oh, you know you can just go down to the Office Depot and get more paper,’” said Nataline Adona, the assistant clerk-recorder/registrar in Nevada County, California. “We can’t.”

Adona said her office had to scramble to secure enough paper to print voter information guides before the June 2022 primary. To guard against delays, staff put in their orders months in advance for items like envelopes for mail ballots.

“We don’t have a lot of control over here at the local level,” Adona said.

Eleventh-hour alterations affecting the ballot — typically court-ordered changes — also pose a risk. 

“In this cycle, there may not be a way to reprint ballots late in the game,” said Matthew Weil of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which recently published a report on the paper shortage. That risks “chaos,” he said, in jurisdictions where a judge might strike a candidate from a ballot as the election draws close.

Problems could ripple beyond this year and affect 2024 elections, experts warn. But for now, officials are focused on solving 2022 shortages.

The machines that tally votes can require paper of a specific thickness, smoothness and weight. So election officials have found ways to get creative with other items. In Massachusetts, the state bought a different shade of envelopes — browner than what voters are used to, said Debra O’Malley of the state’s Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth. The agency had to obtain additional funding to deal with printing issues.

Several state legislatures passed bills in 2021 and 2022 making huge changes to voting, transforming the work of local election officials. Texas’ new law made it more difficult to vote by restricting “drive-through voting” and requiring additional ID for mail voting. With the shortage of paper forms this winter, the law also made it more difficult to register to vote. 

“It’s another barrier,” said Lydia Camarillo, president of San Antonio-based Southwest Voter.

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Eighty miles up Interstate 35 from Camarillo’s organization, Texas’ League of Women Voters was dealing with the same problem in Austin. “W​e could not get the applications,” said president Joyce LeBombard. 

The group typically hands out voter registration forms at high school graduations and naturalization ceremonies around the state. In places like Harris County — home to Houston and a population of 4.7 million — the league received 6,000 fewer forms than it requested. “We weren’t able to provide them to everyone” at naturalization ceremonies, LeBombard said.

The League of Women Voters eventually raised money to place a bulk print order of its own, something the state permits. The league printed 10,000 forms in Harris County alone. 

At Southwest Voter, leaders got in touch with a state senator about the shortages, and things quickly changed. Two weeks after Lydia Camarillo was told the state couldn’t provide the requested voter registration forms, a pile of cardboard boxes containing about 24,000 forms arrived on the porch of their offices — nearly everything the group had asked for.

Still, the paper shortage disrupted efforts to register voters in a state where newly drawn congressional and legislative maps give white voters outsized power.

Camarillo feared the shortage of voter registration forms earlier this year had a similar effect, “stopping Latinos and Blacks and other groups from registering to vote.”

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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Southwest Voter Registration Education Project

Boxes containing thousands of paper voter registration forms on the doorstep of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio, Texas, in 2022. SVREP president Lydia Camarillo said a shortage led to a delay in receiving over 20,000 forms. The boxes arrived after the organization contacted a state senator.