Roundtable With Prominent Lawmaker on Capitol Hill Addresses Widespread Paper Shortage in the Printing Industry
By Mark Michelson
Although the paper shortage — in conjunction with other supply-chain disruptions — is top-of-mind among print providers serving a wide range of markets, it’s not a dilemma that captures attention in the mainstream media, nor among lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In response, PRINTING United Alliance took its role seriously as the largest member-based printing and graphic arts association in the U.S. to advocate and draw attention to the ongoing scarcity of printing grades and skyrocketing paper prices, as supply levels fail to keep up with overall industry demand.
The Alliance approached the effort to raise awareness about the broader problem in a way that would attract the attention of Congressional leaders: how the ongoing paper shortage could impact the upcoming mid-term elections in November 2022, specifically the production of printed paper ballots, envelopes, voter registration forms, voter guides, and other political-related printed materials, and even for “I voted” stickers.
A record 92% of Americans live in jurisdictions that rely on paper ballots for voting, a sharp rise from the 2016 Presidential-year election — an election that was filled with accusations of campaign meddling by Russia and concerns about the potential cyberattack vulnerabilities and counting accuracy of electronic voting machines.
Several weeks ago, the Alliance sent a letter to the House Committee on Administration to help raise awareness on Capitol Hill. In response, its Ranking Member, fifth-term congressman Rodney Davis (R-IL) — who has broad oversight jurisdiction over federal elections — convened a roundtable discussion on Friday, March 18, in Washington, DC, to explore the implications of restricted paper supplies on the upcoming mid-term elections. Davis is also leading a “Faith in Elections” project, an initiative to promote voter confidence in the U.S. election systems and outcomes through education, engagement, and reform.
The roundtable discussion, which also attracted general media coverage, was attended by representatives from across the paper and printing industries, election vendors, state and local elections officials, industry groups, and the Election Assistance Commission.
Among the various speakers, Ford Bowers, CEO of the Alliance, provided a general overview of market conditions that have led to the printing and writing paper shortage in the first place. He pointed out how the paper shortage has been brewing for a long time, with no new U.S. printing paper mills coming online in decades, multiple mill closures, and conversions within some existing paper mills to production of higher-margin corrugated and packaging grades, as well as consumer paper products.
COVID-19 — with a growing shift to home-schooling, and more people working from home — further exacerbated the problem, Bowers added, with higher demands for printed products such as educational materials and books (book sales jumped 13% in 2021, alone), for example, within a distressed supply-chain environment of trucking, shipping, and raw materials shortages.
“In 2020, there were approximately 90 million mail-in ballots cast, requiring upwards of 270 million envelopes,” Bowers said in a prepared statement. “We anticipate the same will be needed for this year’s cycle. We do not yet know if there will be adequate supplies of these materials to meet demand this year.”
Bowers’ sentiments were echoed by executives from two printing companies that specialize in election-related materials who flew to Washington, DC, to express their concerns.
Jeff Ellington, CEO, and James Suver, VP of business development, of Phoenix-based Runbeck Election Services, explained how election community needs all revolve around paper. As a result, Runbeck has warned its customers to order paper products earlier than they have in past elections to mitigate their risks and to account for the longer lead time needed for Runbeck to secure the needed paper.
Similarly, Bradley Thompson, president of Inland Press in Detroit, commented that Inland Press handles 25% of ballots for the State of Michigan. Although they ordered paper this past August and has commitments that it will be delivered, he said he won’t be able to relax until the paper actually arrives at his facility — and he’s not even sure what the paper costs will actually turn out to be. Thompson pointed out that costs have increased 40% on paper, which puts an added financial stress on counties, and has made it very difficult for Inland to quote jobs. Aside from paper ballots themselves, there is also a shortage of the paper used to manufacture absentee ballot return envelopes, he added.
Congressman Rodney Davis thanked the attendees for voicing their concerns and indicated that the key takeaways were to 1) raise awareness of the problem, 2) prioritize election printing, and 3) reach out to the mills and paper industry in general to make efforts to alleviate the shortages. Another meeting is also being planned for a later date.
“Printing is an essential industry, and nothing highlights its essential nature more than the fact that, without printing, faith in our democratic process and elections are at risk,” Bowers stressed, following the meeting with Davis. “The conversation that took place during this special roundtable was a good first step in putting this issue in front of key stakeholders who have the ability to influence necessary legislative remedies and change.”
In order to help track and centralize updates to the constantly changing landscape of supply-chain issues, PRINTING United Alliance has also launched a dedicated Supply Chain Resource Channel, which is located at: https://www.printing.org/library/supply-chain-resources.