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Priya Gohil

Get Ready For the Biggest Election Cycle in History

On the campaign trail and at the ballot box, print will be everywhere

Feb 12, 2024 7:00:00 PM


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This decade has seen a fair bit of turbulence already, and 2024 promises much more. It is a huge year for elections, with billions of people set to vote during the next 12 months. At the time of writing, citizens of Bangladesh, Finland, Pakistan, and Taiwan have already gone to the polls, while elections in Indonesia, Uruguay, Lithuania, India, Mexico, South Africa, and the United States are forthcoming. In fact, over 80 national elections—seven of the 10 most populous nations in the world among them—are scheduled to take place this year, impacting on an estimated 4.2 billion people (52% of the planet’s population).


The stakes are high not just for the domestic and international geo-political landscape, but for print providers the world over!


On the Campaign Trail: Digital vs. Print

When it comes to elections, print is king. Sure, the ubiquity of smartphones and our predilection for scrolling social media and online sites means it’s not surprising parties are channeling more resources and money into campaigning online and on digital advertising. Digital ads also have a broad reach, providing a potent and impactful option. They offer configurability and control, enabling precise (and repeated) targeting of specific seats and voters with tailored messages on issues that campaigners think they’ll want to hear.


Some commentators may say the “real” digital election is happening elsewhere in virtual arenas—in local WhatsApp groups, platforms like X (formerly Twitter), not to mention bots and AI. Social media users can fall into echo chambers, with algorithmic recommendations feeding them media content that reaffirm their views; its fertile ground for fueling partisanship and polarization.


Concerns over meddling, disinformation, and deep fakes undermine our faith in democratic institutions and electoral processes, and are unlikely to be assuaged as we head into this critical election cycle despite welcomed moves to bring some level of transparency and accountability to electoral campaigning and advertising here in the UK. More recently, ChatGPT creator OpenAI has outlined its plan to prevent its technology from being used to spread misinformation and interfere with elections.


Of course, campaign information regardless of how it is communicated—print or digitally—must be factchecked, credible, and authentic. But print providers must be rubbing their hands with glee this year; often regarded as a more reliable and trustworthy source of information, print will be needed more than ever.


In Print We Trust

Undeniably, print has a powerful role in election campaigns. Many a voter has been swayed by a masterful political slogan or image splashed across posters and billboards and newspapers. A good example of this in the UK is the “Labour Isn’t Working” poster, designed for the Conservative Party’s 1979 UK General Election campaign and set out to instill fear of the incumbent Labour government; it achieved the desired effect and Margaret Thatcher swept into power that year.


This skillful campaign poster helped sway public opinion in the
1979 UK General Election (Source: Saatchi & Saatchi, for the Conservative Party).


Print service providers (PSPs) worldwide will be concentrating on bread-and-butter electoral materials:  placards, banners, flags, campaign leaflets and posters, door drop mailings, pop-up stands, T-shirts, rosettes, badges, and so on. A crucial element among these is the voter-verified paper ballot, a cornerstone of secure and trustworthy elections. The production of printed ballot materials demands specialized attention, including the procurement of appropriate paper in the necessary quantities (factoring in extra for contingencies)—ensuring timely, safe delivery and secure storage in a controlled environment until use. Ballot printers must adhere to these key parameters amidst the challenges posed by the long-term decrease in paper production, escalating material costs, and disruptions in the supply chain.


Additional factors to consider include securing an adequate supply of suitable paper to accommodate various voting methods. It's uncertain whether the preference for postal voting (heightened during the COVID years) will persist, or if we will see an increase in in-person voting at the ballot box this year (again, another challenge for planners and printers to make sure orders can be fulfilled). Moreover, verifying the paper's compatibility with the ballot design and the designated printer is critical.


Blunders at the Ballot Box

“The combined effect of the heavy paper, longer ballot, and intermittent burst of print demand pushed the printers to perform at the very edge of or past their capability,” are the words of retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth McGregor following her investigation into the widespread problems that beset the 2022 Maricopa County election. These factors contributed to print quality issues that led to multiple ballot machines rejecting papers across the state (meaning they had to be tallied separately).


As ballot paper printing requires managing high volumes within short deadlines, and demands utmost accuracy in print quality, it’s essential for providers to thoroughly test their systems. This includes ensuring compatibility between the printer and the ballot media as well as verifying that all printed materials are error-free and accurate. California stands out as having a state certification program for interested ballot print vendors, highlighting the importance of such measures. For PSPs in general, it's imperative to conduct rigorous testing. This should assess the reliability and suitability of their printers for local and national election purposes—ensuring they meet the high standards necessary for such a critical task.


X Marks the Spot

Earlier this month I stood in line to mark my “X” for my preferred candidate in a local ward election. As I looked at the ballot, my thoughts turned to the printer used for its creation, reflecting on how this act of printing intertwines with the wonderful exercise of democracy and of the billions of people worldwide who will be casting their votes this year.


Here’s to hoping for smooth and fair and safe elections for all!


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