- A conspiracy theory falsely claims that using a “Sharpie” marker to fill out ballots in Arizona caused votes for President Donald Trump to be invalidated.
- “Sharpies are just fine to use,” Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the Maricopa County Elections Department, told Reuters. “They do not impact tabulation, and we encourage them on Election Day because of how fast the ink dries.”
- The false claim has been promoted by right-wing activists, including Matt Schlapp, who heads the group that puts on the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
- Twitter labelled some tweets on the issue “misleading,” and after Business Insider flagged YouTube videos spreading the conspiracy theory, Google added an information label on them and redirected related searches to a fact-check.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Fox News called the state of Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden on election night, Republicans â€” including the Trump campaign â€” were furious, claiming, in contrast to their position in Pennsylvania and Georgia, that ballots should continue to be counted before a win or loss is declared in the state.
In the meantime, however, right-wing activists, including a former aide to former President George W. Bush, have come up with another explanation for the apparent setback: Sharpies.
They tried to spread an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that poll workers, apparently able to discern Republicans from Democrats with a glance, handed presumed supporters of President Donald Trump felt-tipped pens, setting them up to invalidate their ballots.
One woman in Maricopa County has also filed a lawsuit, with the help of the conserative Public Interest Legal Foundation, claiming her ballot was rejected by a voting machine because she used a marker, the local CBS affiliate reported.
Her claim is not true, according to experts and election officials.
“Sharpies are just fine to use,” Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the Maricopa County Elections Department, told Reuters. “They do not impact tabulation, and we encourage them on Election Day because of how fast the ink dries.”
Did you know we use Sharpies in the Vote Centers so the ink doesn’t smudge as ballots are counted onsite? New offset columns on the ballots means bleed through won’t impact your vote! Find a location before the polls close at 7 p.m. today at https://t.co/8YEmXbWyRL. pic.twitter.com/KKG2O8rQhf
— Maricopa County Elections Department (@MaricopaVote) November 3, 2020
“If you voted a regular ballot in-person, your ballot will be counted,” added Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, “no matter what kind of pen you used (even a Sharpie)!”
The Election Integrity Partnership, a group led by the Stanford Internet Observatory and the University of Washington’s Centre for an Informed Public, also debunked the conspiracy theory.
“There is no evidence of a plot to disenfranchise voters by passing out Sharpies at polling stations,” it posted on Twitter.
1/ There is no evidence of a plot to disenfranchise voters by passing out sharpies at polling stations. Election officials provide voters with allowable writing implements. We have been tracking #sharpiegate as it propagates across platforms (screenshot of a removed tiktok ????) pic.twitter.com/FzpHKPm9Sz
— Election Integrity Partnership (@2020Partnership) November 4, 2020
The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, formed in 2018 by legislation Trump signed, has also labelled the conspiracy theory a false rumour. “Poll workers are required to provide approved writing devices to voters,” it noted.
But conspiracy theorists are notoriously immune to fact-checking. Search Twitter and, after a few articles debunking the claim, there is tweet after tweet asserting that, for example, the handing out of writing implements was “a socialists [sic] ploy to undermine @realDonaldTrump.”
“Voted with a sharpie pen and now my vote is cancelled,” another user claimed, posting a screenshot that actually indicated they had voted in person, which would then cancel their mail-in ballot.
Voters who received an early ballot in the mail but chose to instead vote in-person will see their early ballot status as “Canceled” on their Ballot-by-Mail/Early Ballot Status update. This is because the early ballot is canceled so the ballot cast-in person can be counted. 2/ pic.twitter.com/OoxnGQactg
— Secretary Katie Hobbs (@SecretaryHobbs) November 4, 2020
Twitter marked some tweets spreading the claim ‘misleading’
Matt Schlapp, a right-wing lobbyist, former Bush staffer, and chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that puts on the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, has promoted the conspiracy theory, with the caveat “apparently.”
“[T]he use of Sharpie pens in GOP precincts is causing ballots to be invalidated,” he tweeted, a claim the social network marked as “disputed” and potentially “misleading.”
In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson told Business Insider that posts “that misleading claim ballots were invalidated in Maricopa County, Arizona, on the basis of being completed with a Sharpie are being labelled in line with our Civic Integrity Policy.” The company has also created a “moment” listing fact-checks that debunk the theory.
But the notice, which prevents a post from being reshared, is not on Schlapp’s other tweets with the hashtags #SharpieGate and #StopTheSteal. Numerous other posts from less prominent users are also unlabeled, despite demonstrably false and inflammatory claims that their votes were “cancelled” because they used a marker, not because they voted in person and were no longer filing absentee ballots.
In an email, Schlapp was defiant in the face of evidence contradicting the conspiracy theory. “If local officials want to say this didn’t happen it is their option,” he told Business Insider.
Based on correspondence and conversations with Maricopa County officials, we are now confident that the use of Sharpie markers did not result in disenfranchisement for Arizona voters. We appreciate the county’s prompt insight and assurances to address public concerns. pic.twitter.com/NdYLsEAvwd
— Mark Brnovich (@GeneralBrnovich) November 6, 2020
In the meantime, posts from users falsely claiming to be victimized by a writing utensil continue to go viral, and not just on Twitter.
On YouTube, there are numerous videos promoting “SharpieGate,” with titles such as “Election Fraud Exposed In Arizona” and “Voting Scandal of the Century.”
On Facebook, one video was shared more than 100,000 times, as Reuters reported, before being labelled “false information.”
But YouTube, owned by Google, said it has no plans to eliminate such disinformation.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Google said “videos flagged to us by Business Insider do not violate our Community Guidelines.” But the company said it would add an “information panel below these videos.” As of Wednesday night, that panel read: “Results may not be final. See the latest on Google.”
A search for related terms, such as “Sharpie Arizona,” now brings up a link to a fact check.
While popular social networks took some steps to address the spread of viral conspiracy theories before the election, the aftermath presents a different challenge.
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