With all the press right now on Vote by Mail and the upcoming presidential election, it would be impossible for folks not to be aware that election mail can bring both challenge and opportunity within the mailing industry. But there is so much more to the topic that mail service providers (MSPs) should be aware of – particularly for 2020 elections. And the bottom line is that both political and election mail present growth opportunities for MSPs, way beyond 2020.

First, let’s be clear on the difference between political mail and election mail, because it is key that mailers understand the differences. Political mail is anything mailed for campaign purposes by a registered political candidate, campaign committee, or committee of a political party. Think of the types of mail you receive leading up to local and national elections from candidates – these are great examples of political mail. Political mail can be sent Marketing Mail or First-Class Mail.

Political Mail vs. Election Mail

Political mail is a great medium for campaign marketing – studies show it is received well by consumers, and it can help shape voter opinions. The USPS shares research on political mail and its effectiveness on its “Deliver the Win” website as well as promoting its use through webinars, ads, and a dedicated marketing team. Political mail is a great growth opportunity for mail service providers, many of whom already process such pieces. The key to growing that business is building relationships with political consultants, campaign managers, legislators, and others who make decisions around what companies to use for their mail marketing. With tens of thousands of local, county, and state elections happening every year around the US, there is no shortage of opportunity!

Election mail is any mail sent to or from authorized elections officials that enable citizens to vote. That doesn’t mean just the voting ballots themselves; it also includes things like voter registration cards, voter address updates, sample ballots, voter instructional materials, absentee ballot requests, polling place notifications, etc. Election mail can be sent First-Class Mail or Marketing Mail… but the USPS recommends use of First-Class Mail with IMb, and all election mail sent by voters to state/local election officials MUST be sent via First-Class Mail.

Vote by Mail makes it easy for most people to vote and adds yet another option to support that goal. There is an additional layer of security with Vote by Mail in that sophisticated processes are used to track outgoing ballots and returns, and irregularities can be detected and dealt with. Vote at Home is an umbrella term that includes both Vote by Mail as well as receiving a ballot in the mail and dropping it off at a local site when voting.

Challenges and Opportunities for MSPs

From the standpoint of an MSP, processing election mail may not be an easy opportunity to get into – it takes knowledge, equipment, security/tracking/data proficiency, and more. And it is not without risk. But for those companies that have mastered the process, it is a profitable business line. And there are many parts in the end-to-end process that may be done all by one provider, or may be contracted out separately – such as ballot printing, inserting into envelopes, applying barcodes, sortation/entry, tracking/data management, and more.

For those MSPs who have never offered election mail services, 2020 could be a very challenging time to start doing so. Not only is it late in the year for newcomers to get up to speed on all that is involved in processing election mail, but new equipment likely would be needed — and no one is ordering new equipment until after they have a contract locked in with the elections group overseeing mailing of absentee ballots. The barrier to entry for some will be the significant capital investment in the printing, binding, inserting equipment, and software required to be able to process the ballots with the high quality and short turnaround times required. There also could be issues in 2020 with equipment availability from suppliers who are already pushing their manufacturing to the limit to accommodate new orders, so those that wait too late may find they can’t get the equipment they need in time.

Although there is an immense amount of pressure pushing down on providers during the 2020 election cycle, the entire supply chain is working to meet the needs of election officials and ensure that every vote counts. It is important for voters and campaigners to understand that the industry, USPS, and state/county/local election offices are doing what they can to execute Vote by Mail successfully.

That doesn’t mean that just because a company can’t get set up to do an election mail contract in 2020, they should not look at election mail as a viable long-term opportunity. While 2020 and other national election years bring lots of absentee voting volume, they are not the only years that mailers can provide these services, and the national election is not the only game in town. And the volume of absentee voting is on the rise – now more than ever.

Even prior to the pandemic, Vote by Mail has been increasing in the US. According to Vote at Home (https://www.voteathome.org/) for the 2018 mid-term elections, nationally about 25% of voters voted by mail ballot; for the 2020 primaries, about 45% of Americans voted from home, and election experts predict that for 2020 nearly 70% of all votes cast could be through absentee ballots in the mail.

Prior to the pandemic, only a small group of states were entirely Vote at Home, with another small group having lenient (no excuse needed) absentee voting policies. Since the pandemic, however, more states are moving to make their absentee voting policies more lenient and allow more Vote by Mail. And that direction is continuing, with states that formerly had little or no Vote by Mail now considering mail ballot options. Almost every day, there are articles in the press about changes at the state level that will increase mailed ballot numbers. Experienced election MSPs are seeing a significant increase and many are expanding that business line with new equipment and capacity.

There is much concern within the election mail community, however, that many states will experience significant increases in absentee ballot voting without being sufficiently prepared to handle it. Increasing election mail service contracts requires funding, then not only do those contracts need to be filled by qualified mailing partners (who may or may not have the additional capacity), and those mailing partners need to obtain additional equipment (which may or may not be available in time)… there is also the return ballot piece of the processing that the election officials need to be prepared for. Many may have used hand counting/processing of absentee ballots in the past – which may have worked for small volume of return ballots – but won’t be a viable option if the number of absentee ballots coming back significantly increases (as predicted in many areas). They may need to purchase equipment to perform the return ballot processing — and will that equipment be available if they wait too long to anticipate that need?

So if 2020 is going to be a banner year in terms of election mail volume, suppose your company could bid on an election mail contract, get the necessary equipment/processes in place, and prepare to offer the service. Should you? The advice from those who offer election mail services today (and many that tried it for the first time lacking sufficient education and processes in place) would be: proceed with extraordinary caution. Providing election mail services is not for the faint of heart. There is a great deal of risk and liability involved, not to mention the likelihood that the bad press if things go wrong could put you out of business! And with all the politically heated debate this year around whether Vote by Mail is secure, there undoubtedly will be a bright light shone on any errors with ballots.

The USPS is working hard to prevent some issues with election and political mail that could occur. In late May, the USPS sent a letter to all local and state election officials and state party officials around the country with guidance on a successful vote by mail effort. The USPS stressed that its delivery standards need to be considered when informing voters how to vote by mail to ensure ballots have sufficient time to be processed and delivered prior to the election date. The USPS also stresses that proper labeling of containers with political or election mail is key, as is mail piece design and tracking of ballots. The USPS also provides a lot of publications, guides, and materials to support vote by mail (you can get more information at http://www.about.usps.com/election-mail/election-mail-resources.htm and the USPS’ https://www.deliverthewin.com/ website, which provides research and support of political and election mail). USPS also has teams dedicated to working with election officials and others on political and election mail.

Of course, those MSPs that have experience successfully handling election mail also have great resources and can help guide election officials on issues such as ballot design, envelopes, delivery timeframes, data/tracking, IMb usage, and much more! 2020 promises to be an interesting election mail year, for sure, but smart MSPs are looking at election mail opportunities in the long term (which supports the necessary investment), as well as focusing on political mail for 2020 and beyond as a huge opportunity to rebuild some much-needed mail volume.

Kathleen J. Siviter is Asst. Executive Director of the National Association of Presort Mailers (NAPM) as well President of Postal Consulting Services Inc. (PCSi), and she has over 30 years’ experience in the postal industry. She has worked for the U.S. Postal Service, Association for Postal Commerce (PostCom), PostalVision and others, as well as providing consulting services to a diverse set of clients with interest in the postal industry.

This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2020 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.