Some recent news reports have suggested a shortage of paper availability for paper ballots in advance of upcoming elections. We sat down with Terry Webber, AF&PA’s Vice President of Industry Affairs, to answer a few commonly asked questions about this important topic.
Terry, what is the current status of paper manufacturing?
First, demand for our sustainable paper products is strong. And our member companies have continued to deliver safe, sustainable, and essential products despite a range of challenges from supply chain disruptions to regulatory uncertainty.
Our industry remains committed to serving our customers, just as it has throughout the pandemic. Paper products continue to be manufactured 365 days a year, by a dedicated and essential workforce.
Can you talk more about specific challenges the industry is facing?
Absolutely. Our industry is responsive to the U.S. economy and our customers. For instance, with the rise in internet and digital technology, coupled with the rise in remote work, capacity changes have followed changes in demand.
And like all sectors of the economy, papermakers are dealing with challenges originating from the ongoing pandemic. This includes volatile demand for products, lack of inventory, physical space limitations, and lack of sufficient and efficient transportation options.
AF&PA members remain resilient and continue to work diligently and safely in creating sustainable paper products for our customers.
Graphic paper demand has also been declining over the last number of years. During the 10-year period prior to the pandemic, overall printing paper demand declined an average of 3.6% per year. For the types of paper used for paper ballots, the average demand reduction over the same period was 2.6%.
The pandemic in 2020 triggered an historic reduction in graphic paper demand, with overall printing paper demand declining 22.5% and uncoated paper demand reduced by 19%. Some companies respond to these marketplace shifts by shutting down operations, with others re-aligning capacity towards products that better fit their corporate objectives.
We’ve been seeing news articles in recent weeks citing specific concerns about the accessibility of paper for paper ballots. Should we be worried?
The short answer is, there is no reason to panic. It’s important, however, to acknowledge the supply chain challenges all sectors of the economy are facing. Whether you’re buying a car, a couch, or a new refrigerator, we’re all experiencing some level of delay in receiving products on our doorsteps.
It’s important to remember these short-term imbalances between supply and demand ultimately sort themselves out as buyers and sellers continue to communicate their mutual needs over the long-term.
The same can be said for paper ballots. Our message for election officials looking to procure paper ballots ahead of this year’s election cycle is this: Make your needs known as soon as possible to suppliers and printers, including the volume, timing, and type of paper needed. Continuous and open communications between paper suppliers and our customers will keep everyone apprised of changes in product availability or schedules.
But AF&PA members have paper mills in communities across the country. Why can’t they just make more paper?
That’s a great question. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch. As Covid restrictions have eased, we have seen demand for all paper products increase. Year-to-date shipments of printing papers in 2022 have increased 2.8% relative to the same period last year, and the rate of daily shipments of uncoated papers has steadily risen to the highest level since last August.
Paper machines are already running at full capacity. To enable new capacity involves new equipment, a skilled workforce, and securing raw materials and transportation needed to move products from mills to customers. It takes time and adding significant capacity can take years.
So, paper ballots will be available to me on election day?
AF&PA’s members continue to make paper to support customer needs, including paper ballots, which are critical to U.S. elections. Paper offers reliability and security, provides a permanent record, and offers a level of control – including for some sensitive information. For example, physical paper ballots can be counted again in case anything happens to electronic voting tabulation systems.
I would reiterate it is important for election officials to contact their suppliers and printers to make their needs known as early as possible. Timelines for volume, type of paper, and delivery could be different this year than in previous elections cycles, given the supply chain challenges I previously mentioned.
The bottom line is we want consumers to use our essential and sustainable paper products. Our member companies have and will continue to work with their customers to ensure their needs are met.