Mail services within government entities have always been labor-intensive operations with manual sorting, stacking, and traying of both inbound and outbound mail. Because of the change in how states run elections, this manual work has never been more important. Unfortunately, besides causing a surge in mail volume, COVID-19 also impacted mailroom staffing. Governments had to handle the work while some of their experienced employees were sick at home. Finances were strained as well, as local governments dealt with the combination of COVID-related expenses and lower tax revenue because of commerce shut-downs. Some government entities were better prepared than others. Local, state, and county governments that embraced automated mail sorting and processing technology reduced the impact of fewer employees working fewer hours. Automation provided a way for state and local governments to keep up with the demand for mail services and deal with budget cuts and a labor shortage. Other labor-dependent government mail operations struggled. Mail Services Needs a Digital Workflow Digital workflows have the potential to reduce costs, often while boosting customer satisfaction. Private businesses adapt quicker than government agencies and have revolutionized their workflows with digital automation. Though governments have made progress in moving some repetitive, labor-intensive functions to online services, opportunities to digitize processes still exist. Government workers spend more time providing personal customer service than their private industry counterparts, driving up labor costs. A Harvard Business Review study estimated that it costs between $7 and $13 for every live service a government provides. Digitization and automated transactions could yield vast savings. Digital Mail Delivery How do remote government workers, whether working from home or in dispersed agencies, receive mail-in applications, correspondence, and the myriad of daily inbound government forms that need processing? The answer is digital mail delivery. In facilities that have adopted a digital workflow, digital mail technology scans the mail and archives the images on secure servers. Pre-defined business rules determine what happens to each mailpiece. It could be that the mail center opens and scans all First-Class Mail, while they set Marketing Mail aside for later physical delivery. Other mail, identifiable by the address block or other envelope markings, could be automatically routed to specialized departments for processing. The address on the mailpiece can determine the disposition of many items. In other cases, the scanning and sorting software will look up the physical location of an employee’s workspace by matching the addressee’s name printed on the envelope to an organization database. Mail for some departments may be held awaiting further instructions or packaged for courier delivery. The business rules can define many scenarios, depending on the needs of the company. Lack of Postal Knowledge Workers The talent pool of workers in the paper, print, and production mail industries has declined for years, and opportunities for industry training, education, and certification have recently dwindled. The premiere mailing industry event, the National Postal Forum, was reduced to a virtual presence for the second consecutive year because of COVID-19 concerns. Exacerbating the situation, local Postal Customer Council events, where mail training is administered, also transformed into virtual affairs. The pandemic has strongly curtailed postal training in 2020 and 2021. Grooming new unskilled employees for jobs in the mailroom has become a challenge. Automated mail sorting and processing technology reduces the level of postal knowledge required to manage inbound and outbound mail. With automation, more mail center jobs can be easily shared among available employees or assigned to temporary workers when a shortage of permanent mail center staff occurs. Vote by Mail Voter preference surveys show that vote-by-mail is here to stay. The job of accepting, validating, sorting, and counting completed ballots as they are returned will continue to be a task governments must tackle. Speed, security, and accuracy are absolutes in election mail. Fortunately, vote-by-mail technology is scalable for larger state governments as well as city and state mail volumes. Systems like Tritek’s Correct Elect solution automatically monitor the ballot acceptance process. The key to a successful vote-by-mail program for governments with labor and budget constraints is deploying automated mail center technology. Compared to human reading, sorting, and tabulating, automation is 10 to 20 times faster. Wake Up Call The COVID-19 crisis had devastating consequences for state, county, and local governments. Service cutbacks, labor reductions, and a shrinking tax base all contributed to the issues. Local governments may receive some funding from Congress but will still look for ways to recover from the pandemic’s effects. In addition, the government workforce is not what it once was. The government has often been slow to embrace technology, especially in the mail center. Now they have little choice. An environment with fewer knowledge workers and high vote-by-mail ballot volumes demands requires a new solution. Digital technology in the mail center provides an answer for the cash-strapped state, county, and local governments.
When gathering in groups is unhealthy because of COVID-19, exercising voting rights becomes a challenge. While the virus is active we shouldn’t be standing in long lines with our fellow citizens and touching voting machines handled by people who preceded us in the voting booth. Many states and other jurisdictions have addressed this public health issue by converting their elections to vote-by-mail or expanding an existing program, absentee ballots. The national health crises is affecting the rules governing how we vote, leaving election officials scrambling as they anticipate an unprecedented number of ballots arriving in the mail. This sudden switch comes at a time when a portion of the workers that normally handle absentee ballots are ill, quarantined, have childcare issues, or are needed at home to care for sick family members. Fewer experienced workers combined with a substantial increase in mail volume could spell disaster for state and county election offices unless they are prepared to automate the processing of incoming ballots. Changing the Rules The rules about who can use an absentee ballot vary by state. Voters in 33 states and the District of Columbia can request mail-in ballots for any reason. In other jurisdictions, voters must show up at the polls in person unless they meet certain criteria about mobility, travel, or military service, but that is changing. Because of social distancing guidelines, several states are re-visiting their rules about vote-by-mail. States aim to allow registered voters with concerns about exposure to the virus to participate in elections by voting at home and dropping their ballots in the mail. Many states that already have liberal absentee ballot rules are running campaigns to encourage voters to request mail-in ballots. A bill authored by Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota would force states to offer mail-in ballot options if 25 percent of the states in the US declared an infectious disease or natural disaster. All these changes will put a strain on election offices that rely on volunteers or small staffs to open, verify, and tally election results from absentee ballots. Ballot Handling Procedures When voters use mail-in ballots, they mark their choices and insert their ballots into secrecy envelopes. Some secrecy envelopes seal with a “peal and stick” adhesive and others with more traditional glue that voters can be moisten with a sponge. Voters don’t have to lick the envelopes. The secrecy envelopes are then placed inside a postage-paid mailing envelope the voters must sign before mailing or dropping their ballots in a collection box. At election offices, workers verify the signatures, separate the ballots by precincts, and count the votes. When absentee ballot volumes are low and spread out over many days, these processes can be handled adequately with manual or semi-manual methods. If volumes swell, the workload on peak days will be overwhelming. Preparations Underway TriTek has spoken with many jurisdictions that are preparing for how to efficiently process the expected increase in mail-in ballots. This is the time to acquire the equipment needed to read, sort, and verify the mail at high speed. States and counties that are reasonably sure that handling physical ballots is going to be an issue for them in the next election cannot postpone solution acquisition. The process needs to start soon for them to be ready in time. Reliability matters in equipment selection. No one wants their mail processing machines to break down on election day. Governments must choose solutions that have a track record of accuracy and efficiency. Equipment manufacturer reputations and testimonials from election officials allow lawmakers to be confident about decisions that will increase the number of mail-in ballots their state and local election boards must process to ensure safe and secure elections. Besides alleviating a health crisis, vote-by-mail has other advantages, including lower election costs. See our blog article “Vote by Mail - A Special Flavor of Inbound Mail Processing”. Tritek Correct Elect systems draw upon our company’s extensive experience in handling incoming mail. Available in three varieties, Correct Elect reads all styles of machine-printed and hand-addressed mail ballots at rates up to 15,000 ballots per hour. Tritek’s field proven technology processes ballot signatures against signatures of record for automatic or manual signature verification. Our systems process the addresses, signatures and barcodes while printing the time and date on each ballot. We archive the data in color, gray-scale or black and white. After capturing data and verifying the signatures, Correct Elect systems sort the ballots to the proper precincts. Correct Elect has been running reliably in several states for many years, including Washington, which has conducted all elections primarily by mail since 2005. To learn more about Correct Elect, contact Tritek Technologies. Related Vote By Mail Resources: How to Prepare for the Next Vote by Mail Election How Automated Ballot Processing Works How to Increase Processing Speed for Vote By Mail Envelopes