False rumors about Sharpies went viral, sparking outrage and a lawsuit
Posted November 5, 2020 7:12 p.m. EST
Updated November 5, 2020 11:19 p.m. EST
CNN — False claims that using Sharpie pens could invalidate ballots in Arizona prompted a top Department of Homeland Security official on Thursday to urge people to stop spreading disinformation online connected to the so-called "#SharpieGate" rumors
Those rumors fueled outrage among protesters Wednesday night, and prompted a lawsuit -- joined by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee -- filed against Maricopa County election officials.
Rumors began to spread on social media Wednesday that voters in the battleground state of Arizona who used Sharpie pens on their ballots wouldn't have their votes counted. That confusion prompted state officials, election monitors and a top Trump administration official to push back on "#SharpieGate" rumors.
"Don't promote disinfo! Stop spreading #SharpieGate claims," tweeted Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs on Thursday morning, reminding people that election jurisdictions allow voters to mark ballots with a variety of writing instruments, including Sharpies.
Maricopa County officials said poll workers were trained to require voters to use Sharpies at voting sites because the ink doesn't smudge as ballots are counted. An informational video was posted in a Maricopa County Elections Department tweet that said, "New offset columns on the ballots means bleed through won't impact your vote!"
Rebuke of the online claims comes after a video -- viewed more than a million times on Twitter and shared widely on Facebook and Instagram -- featured an unidentified woman claiming without proof that poll workers tried to force her to use a Sharpie and that she insisted on using an ink pen, to make sure her vote would count.
The video was shot outside the Communiversity at Queen Creek polling site in Maricopa County by Marko Trickovic, who can be heard asking her: "So what they're doing is they're telling people to use Sharpies -- that way those votes aren't counted?" She responds, "Yes."
Overnight, a large protest erupted outside the Maricopa County Elections Department as demonstrators, some them armed, yelled, "Stop the steal!" and raised concerns about the use of Sharpies. Meanwhile, election workers -- watched by Democratic and Republican observers -- diligently counted the votes inside as the sheriff's department stood outside the doorway, reported CNN's Kyung Lah. The next morning, the Maricopa County Elections Department reconfigured its front parking lot to handle more expected protests.
"I don't understand the objective of these protesters. Of course we're going to count all the votes. We are legally obligated to do that," Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said of the protesters who had gathered at a Maricopa County vote counting center Wednesday night -- some of whom were armed -- and urged that every ballot be counted.
Both parties intervene in lawsuit
On Wednesday, two voters filed a lawsuit against Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes and the Maricopa Board of Supervisors, the election officials for the most populous county in Arizona, over the use of Sharpie pens to fill out ballots.
At a Thursday hearing, a judge granted a motion from the Trump campaign and the RNC to intervene, as well as one from the Arizona Democratic Party.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of voters, claiming that the use of Sharpies led to "ballots either not being counted or being improperly subjected to human adjudication," which may have led to votes not being recorded accurately. It asks that any such ballots be "cured," or properly recorded. It also asks that elections officials let voters who filled out their ballots with Sharpie pens to be present during canvassing to observe the ballot count and be able to adjudicate their intent over ballots that could not be read by the voting machines.
It includes a declaration from a poll worker who states he had trouble running ballots through tabulation machines on Election Day: "Ballots that were rejected by one machine were tried on the other tabulation machine and in different orientations, always without success. For these reasons I believe that the issue was caused by the use of sharpies at the polling location."
State election officials have rejected the idea that ballots filled out with Sharpies are being canceled.
Alexander Kolodin, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, was a GOP candidate for state senator in Arizona who lost in the August primary. The Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation, which also is involved in the suit, has repeatedly sued election officials for not purging voters aggressively enough, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.
"This has gotten a lot of national interest," Kolodin told CNN.
Arizona Secretary of State, AG butt heads over Sharpies
Meanwhile, Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich tweeted, "We have received hundreds of voter complaints regarding Sharpies at polling locations. Accordingly, we sent this letter to Maricopa County election officials. Let's get some answers." On Thursday, Brnovich spokesperson Katie Conner told CNN that "we've received more than a thousand complaints" online about the Sharpie issue.
The letter asks the Maricopa County Elections Department several questions, including what voting sites used Sharpies and how many ballots were rejected. A copy was also sent to the Arizona secretary of state. Maricopa's county attorney responded with a letter inviting Brnovich to observe a demonstration of the process for casting and tabulating ballots, saying that all voters in the county were encouraged to use Sharpies and stating that "no ballots were rejected at voting centers."
The state's Director of Elections, Bo Dul, responded in a letter Thursday on behalf of Arizona's secretary of state expressing hope the attorney general "will cease perpetuating a conspiracy theory that undermines the hard work of Arizona's election administrators, poll workers, and voters," and rejecting "the false assumption that using Sharpies on a ballot causes ballots to be rejected, spoiled or cancelled. That is simply not true."
Krebs, a senior Trump appointee and top cyber official, echoed the chorus of election officials trying to stop the spread of false information and fears over Sharpie use.
He also linked to the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research entities focused on mitigating attempts to delegitimize election results, which said 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."
Sharpies can be used in many states "without issue," depending on the type of tabulation system used, according to the Election Integrity Partnership, which added that "#SharpieGate" continued to spread Wednesday, despite attempts by election officials and platforms to slow the dissemination.
Officials stress that all votes will be counted
On its rumor control website, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned people that it's false that poll workers gave specific writing instruments, such as Sharpies, only to certain voters to cause their ballots to be rejected.
In reality, "Election officials provide writing instruments that are approved for marking ballots to all in-person voters using hand-marked paper ballots," said the alert.
The rumors also prompted the Michigan Department of State to issue a fact check, reminding voters that the use of a Sharpie to mark a ballot "will not invalidate or cancel a ballot or vote."
Hobbs sought to reassure voters that their ballots will be counted.
"There is no concern about ballots being counted because of the pen that was used to mark the ballots," Hobbs told CNN on Wednesday. "All of those ballots are being counted and even if the machines can't read them for some reason, a marker bled through to the other side, we have ways to count them. They are going to be counted."
She added that there is "no merit to saying that this was some conspiracy to invalidate Republican ballots."
Elections officials said that slower-drying ink from ballpoint pens can cause smudges on the mylar film in the tabulating machines processing equipment.
"We provide Sharpies. Poll workers tell voters to use Sharpies. We didn't want voters to use ballpoint pens because of the issues they can cause with tabulators," said Maricopa County Elections Department spokesperson Megan Gilbertson, adding that the Sharpies were sanitized after each use.
Gilbertson said that poll workers repeatedly asked the woman shown in the viral video to stop giving voters ballpoint pens and telling them "that ballots with Sharpies would be invalidated."
"She would not comply, so we asked a plainclothes sheriff's deputy to speak with that citizen, and provide her with the information she needed to stop sharing that misinformation," Gilbertson said.