Print-on-Demand Ballots Are a Process Error

Maricopa, AZ finds that local ballot printing is too fragile for elections.

There has been an important development in the Maricopa, Arizona 2022 general election.

Because of the lockdowns, Arizona decided to shift away from local election polling locations using pre-printed ballots to centralized voting and print-on-demand ballots. To an IT person, this change was very alarming, because printing is literally the bane of our existence. On Day 1 of my 50-year career, I had to deal with a printer problem. On my very last day, I had to deal with a printer problem. AGAIN.

In IT, we like to test things first. Arizona did a stress test of their print-on-demand ballots well before the election, and all the tests passed. However, on election day, more than 1/3rd of the central polling precincts reported that the printers were creating ballots that could not be read by the scanners. And, in the worst locations, running ballots through the scanners rendered them unable to read ANY ballots.

The good news is that the messed-up scanners were found to just be clogged with flakes of printer ink, and once cleaned, were able to be put back into service. The unreadable ballots were re-copied by election staff onto new ballots, and then could be scanned successfully. So in the end, the election results were certified.

A commission was formed to determine the cause(s) of the problems and to recommend mitigations. You can read their report here: Maricopa County 2022 General Election Ballot-on-Demand Printer Investigation

The immediate cause of the problem is that they used laser printers, which use heat to fuse ink to the paper. Because the ballots are printed intermittently, not all the printers were able to reach operating temperature before printing the page, resulting in ink that would flake off the paper. These flakes would then clog the scanner imaging sensors. They didn't catch this in the original stress tests, because the tests were run back-to-back, so the printers always stayed hot enough to work. When the commission better duplicated the real-world environment and re-ran the tests, however, they found the printers failed at 4 times the rate of the control group.

Most shockingly, however, the commission found that none of the printers – not even the printers from their control group – were able to perform with less than a 5% read error rate. That's just flat-out unacceptable, in my view. The error rate for the ballot scanner is literally in the single-digits per tens of thousands of scans. What use is that level of accuracy if you're failing to even produce a readable ballot 5% of the time!?

So, the root technical cause of this error is not using pre-printed ballots. Print-on-demand balloting is just not reliable enough to handle an election. Printers are an IT nightmare. Surprise, surprise.

And the root policy cause was the the decision to abandon local voting precincts. Previously, each locality ordered up their own, pre-printed ballots which were created on industrial, offset printing machines. This needs to happen again. Arizona should return back to local voting.


Sign in or become a Dave Essentials member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.