Miami-Dade needs 1.4 million ballots and 100 variations. Here’s how they get printed.

Miami-Dade ballots hot off the presses

Workers at Miami-Dade county's Internal Service Dept. print shop are playing in their 'Super Bowl.' The team is printing 1.4 million ballots in just 21 days, in time for election day Nov. 6, 2018.
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Workers at Miami-Dade county's Internal Service Dept. print shop are playing in their 'Super Bowl.' The team is printing 1.4 million ballots in just 21 days, in time for election day Nov. 6, 2018.

In a printing plant just west of Miami International Airport, every second counts: It means three more ballots ready for the Nov. 6 election.

From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., five days a week, Miami-Dade county’s printing press is churning out 100 ballot variations, each offering a different combination of candidates and questions to correspond with where voters live. The county’s online list of everything and everyone up for a vote stretches to 76 pages. Every item is printed in English, Spanish and Creole.

Printing will take 21 days. By the end, the county will have produced 1.4 million ballots.

“This is our Super Bowl,” said David Campos, who oversees the operation as graphics services manager.

The county has slightly more than 1.4 million registered voters but doesn’t have to produce a ballot for each one — in 2014, the last midterm election, only 41 percent of eligible voters voted.

Miami-Dade has seen an increase in vote-by-mail requests, with more than 312,000 ballots requested so far for the 2018 general election, compared to just over 290,000 for 2014. Those ballots, which take more steps to prepare, will be sent out on Oct. 9 — which is also the deadline to register to vote.

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Enrique Dieguez pulls a freshly printed ballot off of the press for a quality control check, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, at Miami-Dade’s Internal Services Department print shop. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

They will continue to be sent out as requests are received. Miami-Dade residents who want to vote by mail must request their ballot by Oct. 31 and can do so online or by email, fax, phone or mail. The elections department must receive the ballot by 7 p.m. on election day.

Even Campos votes by mail. “The day that I get my ballot in the mail, that’s a really proud moment for me,” he said.

Overseas ballots have already been mailed.

A spokesman for the county elections department declined to comment on a recent study that found mail ballots were 10 times more likely to be rejected than those cast at early-voting sites or on Election Day. Early voting is available from Oct. 22 to Nov. 4, and locations are listed on the county’s website. Those ballots are individually printed on-site.

Ballot printing requires the utmost precision. No detail is overlooked, not even the threat of a hurricane — the printing plant is fortified and has its own generator.

The county imports 19.7 x 29-inch sheets of paper from a mill in Portugal, spending $130,000 for the election cycle. The paper has been especially certified for use in the machines that count votes, and the specific size dimensions minimize waste.

First, technicians trained in graphic arts set up the press, using leftover ballots from the last election as a template. The press, a $1.3 million Heidelberg Speedmaster, runs the paper through a series of five rollers. A worker feeds black ink, thick like tar, into one of the machine’s towers. The press spits out the freshly stamped ballots, which are left to dry overnight.

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A stack of freshly cut and bundled mail ballots is ready for shipment in the finishing and packaging department at Miami-Dade’s Internal Services Department print shop Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

Every few hundred sheets, a worker pulls one from the press and uses a machine called a densitometer to test the ballot’s quality. The ballots will later be tested a second time to ensure the voting machines can properly read them.

Next, a “jogger” machine preps the stacks of dry ballots for cutting by perfectly lining up the edges and pushing out any air bubbles. A “guillotine” cuts each sheet into three ballot pages. Another machine folds the vote-by-mail ballots and wraps them in color-coded bundles based on what’s on the ballot. Workers wearing fingerless gloves — to keep the ballots spotless and prevent paper cuts — pack the bundles into boxes for delivery to the county election department.

Throughout the plant, posters reading “ELECTION READY” hang year-round.

“It serves as a reminder of how important it is what we do,” Campos said.

Visit the Miami-Dade County Elections Department website for more information on how, when and where to vote.