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Absentee ballot mailings delayed in Butler and other counties

Cincinnati Enquirer logo Cincinnati Enquirer 10/9/2020 Doug Livingston, Akron Beacon Journal
a refrigerator in a kitchen: Large partitions have been placed between voting booths at the early voting center at the Summit County Board of Elections Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 in Akron, Ohio. Early voting begins Tuesday, Oct. 6. © Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal Large partitions have been placed between voting booths at the early voting center at the Summit County Board of Elections Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 in Akron, Ohio. Early voting begins Tuesday, Oct. 6.

The mailing of hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots across Ohio  – including some in Butler County – has been delayed as a private vendor deals with triple the expected volume and equipment issues.

Midwest Direct CEO Richard Gebbie said a first round of 1.4 million absentee ballots will not be ready for the U.S. Postal Service to pick up and begin delivering until Monday evening.

The Cleveland company, which has been around since 1982 and in the business of printing ballots for a decade, is contracted to print ballots and stuff them in envelopes for boards of elections in 20 Ohio counties.

Most clients are in northeast Ohio. Butler County Board of Elections has a contract with Midwest Direct and experienced delays.

"We have been working on that with them (Midwest Direct) very closely, and with the post office, so we know that at this point our ballots are printed," Butler County Board of Elections deputy director Eric Corbin told The Enquirer Thursday evening.

Some of the ballots were delivered to the post office Thursday afternoon, and "the rest are to follow shortly," Corbin said. He said voters should expect their absentee ballots appear on Saturday.

Election officials in Hamilton and Clermont counties said they did not work with Midwest Direct and have had no issues with delays.

Gebbie would not share a complete list of clients.

Since signing the printing contracts, Gebbie said his 20 clients have collectively tripled the number of absentee ballots they need printed as Ohio and the country experience an unprecedented spike in mail-in voting during the pandemic.

The delivery delay will impact each county differently. In some less-populous counties, the orders were more easily filled on time, he said. In others, like Akron's Summit County, vote-by-mail ballots may begin to trickle out Saturday, but won't begin to arrive in most mailboxes until the middle of next week.

Summit County election officials hired Midwest Direct to handle what was thought at the time to be 50,000 initial absentee ballot requests. Instead, Gebbie said his company received a digital file with 95,000 names and addresses on Tuesday, the first day that boards of elections could begin mailing absentee ballots.

Some of those voters have been tracking their absentee requests. The ballots were supposed to begin arriving already. They haven't.

“We do need voters to know that the ballots will not be arriving until early next week,” said Bill Rich, chair of the Summit County Board of Elections. “They’re going to be wondering what’s happened to their ballots.”

Stark County had about 60,000 absentee ballot requests by the beginning of this week. Its board of elections had hired Integrated Voting Systems to print the ballots at its Cleveland facility. From there, ballots were to be assembled, stuffed in envelopes and dropped to the postal service by Midwest Direct.

Travis Secrest, an administrative assistant at Stark's election board, said IVS officials told him on Thursday the county's ballots were to be mailed that day. Secrest said Stark isn't concerned with the slight delay for now, because it would have taken much longer to do the voluminous mailing in-house.

Overall, Gebbie explained, the hold-up is due to the increased volume and some mechanical issues, which he said he's sorted out.

The company uses industrial machinery to print, fold and stuff ballots into envelopes. After ordering a new machine from Italy, it took longer than expected to have engineers calibrate it, Gebbie said. He found replacement parts in Boston for another machine –  this one made in Sweeden –  that broke down.

And he said he’s got six printers running 18 hours a day, seven days a week to catch up. Using a predetermined production schedule, Gebbie is "spreading the loads" across the machines to print for multiple counties at once.

So far, he said he’s completed 500,000 ballots in a first round of 1.4 million orders. The next rounds are expected to be much lower in volume.

He said Cuyahoga County is expecting to need a total of 300,000 absentee ballots this election. The first run included ballots for 190,000 voters. A second order should be less than 50,000, he said.

Mike West, manager of the Outreach Department at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said ballot mailing in the Cleveland area is on schedule. The first ballots hit mailboxes Tuesday, West said.

That’s not the case in Summit and other counties, which appear to be at the back of the line in the production schedule.

Gebbie said the last of Summit County’s first 95,000 absentee ballots will be ready for postal workers Monday evening, meaning voters who asked for a ballot weeks ago will not get them until well into the second week of early voting.

Rich said Summit County has always done the absentee ballot printing in-house. The board of elections contracted Midwest Direct for only the first round of ballot printing this election to handle an initial backlog of absentee ballot requests.

“The plan all along,” was to move the ballot printing and envelope-stuffing back in house as the election gets closer and timing becomes more critical, he said.

In order to count, mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 2 and arrive at local boards of elections no later than 10 days after the election on Nov. 3. Any last-minute delays could push voters up against the strict deadlines.

Enquirer reporter Madeline Mitchell and Canton Repository reporter Tim Botos contributed.  Reach Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Absentee ballot mailings delayed in Butler and other counties

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