Republicans Try to Discredit Arizona’s Vote With Unfounded ‘SharpieGate’ Conspiracy

Arizona officials say that whether or not ballots were filled out with Sharpie, they will be counted.
November 4, 2020, 8:10pm
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Image: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Sharpies are making quite the mark in the minds of some pro-Trump conspiracy theorists, who claim that the beloved felt-tipped writing utensil was weaponized at Arizona polling places as part of a plot to sway the election in Joe Biden’s favor. 

It’s been dubbed SharpieGate. 

As of noon Wednesday, with 86 percent of estimated votes reported, Arizona had been tentatively called for Biden by Associated Press

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Meanwhile, Trump allies are zeroing in on a video from outside a polling site in Maricopa County that started making the rounds on Tuesday evening on Facebook. In the video, which also drummed up a presence on TikTok overnight, a woman says that the poll worker was forcing voters to fill out their ballots with Sharpies — and then the machines weren’t processing those ballots. 

She said that poll workers were going around and yanking pens out of their hands and forcing them to use Sharpies. “I took their Sharpie, and I hid it,” she told the person recording the video. “Because then they said, ‘look for all the Sharpies that aren’t being used and take the Sharpies back,’ and they had a bowl of pens that weren’t being used, and only giving Sharpies out.”

Arizona officials say there’s zero basis to this conspiracy, instead touting the “quick-dry” quality of Sharpie ink, which they say makes them suitable implements for filling out ballots that won't bleed through the paper. 

“We tested many different pens, ink, markers,” one Maricopa County election official told FOX10. “The fine-tip Sharpies were the fastest-drying ink, which is important especially on Election Day because the ballot goes directly into the tabulation machine on Election Day.” 

A spokesperson for Maricopa County Elections Department told local outlets that Sharpies were one of three acceptable pens that people could use to fill out ballots (the others are just “black pen” and “blue pen”). 

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Officials in Pima County, about 180 miles southeast, were also trying to quash the conspiracy. “The felt-tip pen ballot controversy burning through social media is false,” Pima County tweeted. “Don't get caught up in it. Arizona ballot-tabulating machines can read ballots marked with a felt-tip pen. Felt pens are discouraged because the ink can bleed through.” 

What is somewhat confusing is that some people note a difference between "felt pens" (which have wider, marker-like tips) and "felt-tip" pens, which have finer points. Most standard Sharpies have a finer point than traditional felt markers, though the Sharpie brand makes markers/pens with varying sizes and tips. Nevertheless, according to election officials in Arizona, votes filled out with Sharpie should be counted as normal.

Way back in October, election officials in Maricopa County published a one-minute video extolling the virtues of Sharpies for filling out ballots. In the video, an animated character “Phil the Ballot” explains that the off-centered columns of the ballots prevent the ink from bleeding through and causing problems with the ballots being read. 

Still, some prominent pro-Trump Twitter accounts are clinging to the conspiracy. Fox News contributor and MAGA activist Matt Schlapp has been soliciting Sharpie stories from other voters. 

Turning Point USA Chief Operating Officer Tyler Bowyer tweeted that they were organizing a protest at the recorder’s office in response to SharpieGate. Students for Trump also cast doubt on the propriety of Sharpies. 

Though this debacle has been dubbed SharpieGate, it’s really SharpieGate 2.0. The original SharpieGate was in September 2019, when Trump displayed a hurricane map that appeared to have been doctored with a Sharpie to extend Hurricane Dorian’s path, in an apparent effort to validate the president’s incorrect tweet about the hurricane.