How a ballot is made: Inside the Phoenix company that serves voters in 23 states
In the weeks before early ballots are sent to voters, election workers are busy.
They run logic and accuracy tests on tabulators. They train temporary employees to work the polls and verify signatures. And, they order ballots for early and in-person voters.
But they can't just get those ballots from any office supply store. Maricopa County officials turn to Runbeck Election Services, a Phoenix-based company that prints voting materials for counties in 23 states.
Here's how your ballot gets made.
The process, start to finish
What to print. When county election officials order ballots, they tell Runbeck exactly how many to print and what races should be on each ballot. They also prepare translations for voters who have requested ballots in a language other than English.
Getting the right ballot in the right envelope. Every ballot is marked with a barcode that, when scanned, tells staff its layout and content. The envelope of every early ballot is marked with a barcode unique to each voter. That helps staff ensure the early ballots are headed to the right voters without being able to trace how they voted later.
"We'll make sure that that ballot style for that voter gets inserted into that mail packet," Ellington said. "We use those bar codes to validate and do all the quality checks."
Shipping ballots. Once the in-person ballots are packaged and ready to go, they're shipped to election officials. Early ballots headed to Arizona voters are transported to a mail facility in Phoenix to get shipped out.
Early ballots going out-of-state can either go through the Phoenix postal facility or get trucked to post offices closer to their final destination.
"If we're delivering to Colorado, we'll deliver to Denver," company president Jeff Ellington said. "If we're delivering to California, it's either Sacramento or the post office in Riverside."
Cameras, GPS and other security measures
Runbeck has 54 fisheye cameras inside their 163,000 square-foot facility, Ellington said.
The building, parking lot and loading docks are access controlled, and temporary workers hired during election season give up their phones before entering the warehouse. Runbeck contracts with a Scottsdale-based cyber security company to oversee its network and build firewalls. Ever since the 2020 presidential election, Runbeck has also kept armed security on site.
"Nobody's really tried to breach the building or anything like that," Ellington said, adding that the company and its staff have received threats which they turned over to law enforcement. "But we've had people pull around here and watch."
Once ballots leave the facility, those getting trucked are closely tracked, Ellington said. The trucks are equipped with GPS and the trailers holding the ballots are sealed before they leave Phoenix.
If time allows, the company will delay shipping if there's a weather event or issue that could imperil the ballots as they move across the country. Currently, Ellington said Runbeck is holding on to Florida ballots until Hurricane Ian passes.
"Ballots are a precious commodity," he said. "We don't want them getting lost."
What happens when the early ballots come back?
Once an early voter fills out their ballot and mails it back, there's a process to verify the voter's signature. Runbeck plays a role there, too.
Runbeck provides software and machines for counties to scan the outside of early ballot envelopes and capture an image of each voter's signed affidavit. Those images go into a secure, automated system for elections staffers to review, while the ballots are stored somewhere safe.
For most counties, that process happens at their election facilities, where they are assisted by Runbeck staffers. Maricopa County is an exception because of its proximity to the company. Here, a bipartisan team from the county delivers completed early ballots in their sealed envelopes to Runbeck's warehouse to be scanned.
"The only two counties that can do that are Maricopa and Pinal, due to proximity," Ellington said. "And Pinal doesn't."
While at Runbeck, the ballots in their sealed envelopes are stored in a secure vault that only certain employees can access.
Once scanned, the still unopened early ballot envelopes get transported to the Maricopa County Elections Department, where they are stored in another vault. Once elections staffers verify signatures, each ballot is separated from its envelope by a bipartisan team. At that point, the ballot becomes anonymous and it goes to the tabulation room to be counted. Runbeck has no involvement in the tabulation process, Ellington said.
By the numbers
"We are a key piece of defending democracy across this country," Ellington said. "It's not just about the ballots being printed for Arizona, but ballots being printed across the nation."
Sasha Hupka covers Maricopa County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic with a focus on voting and democracy. Do you have a tip about election misinformation or questions about voting? Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.