For the first time ever, Arizona voters were given Sharpie permanent markers to mark their ballots at Arizona polls this year, and they have spawned false claims from Republican officials in Arizona and members of the state’s conservative fringe that election officials are using the markers to invalidate votes for Donald Trump and other GOP candidates.
Similar claims have been made by prominent people in the national conservative sphere, including Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Sean Davis, the co-founder of the right-wing Federalist news site.
Elected Republicans in Arizona have made similar claims. U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, no stranger to fringe conspiracy theories, called it “voter fraud” and urged Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate. Rep. Warren Petersen, the GOP leader in the state House of Representatives, alleged that some of his constituents had their votes “cancelled” without explanation and said he referred them to the AG; he later shared a news story alleging malfeasance with the Sharpies. And state Rep. Bret Roberts said anyone who used a Sharpie to mark their ballots should ensure it was counted.
“We have received hundreds of voter complaints regarding Sharpies at polling locations,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in a Tweet Wednesday afternoon, linking to a letter his office sent to Maricopa County election officials. “Let’s get some answers.”
The letter asks Maricopa County election officials to respond by noon on Nov. 5 to several questions regarding the use of Sharpies at polling places including which polling places used them, what other types of markers were made available, how many ballots were rejected and what the meaning of a “cancelled” vote is, among other questions.
A copy of the letter was also sent to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors as well as the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
“To me it smacks of grandstanding and politics,” former state Elections Director Amy Chan said, adding that she is concerned the AG’s request is also coming from a place of fundamental misunderstanding, as voters have for years been told that Sharpies and similar markers were not to be used on ballots because the old machines couldn’t read them.
The Maricopa County Recorder’s Office said Sharpies were given to voters at polling places this year because of new voting machines. While the old voting machines — which had been in use since 1996 — could not read Sharpies and many other commercially available permanent markers, the new machines perform better with felt-tip markers. The new machines can read between 6,000 and 8,000 ballots an hour, about twice as many as the old machines.
Ink from Sharpies dries faster than ink from traditional ballpoint pens, and the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office advised the use of the markers in Maricopa County.
Despite efforts to educate voters about the change, some voters were confused, said Diana Solorio, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office.
“This is something we have provided education on,” Diana Solorio, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office said to the Arizona Mirror, “but how many voters are really interested to hear the elections department has a new machine to count ballots?”
Solorio added that voters who wanted to use pens could, but were advised at polling places that Sharpies were preferred.
“If you used a Sharpie in the past, your ballot would never be thrown out. It would be duplicated onto a ballot that would be readable,” Chan said, adding that she suspects something similar is likely happening to any ballots this year that aren’t able to be read by the new machines.
The allegations began largely through a viral video from Marko Trickovic, who is part of a fringe political movement to create a new political party that aims “to restore and maintain constitutional conservative leadership in Arizona.” The so-called Patriot Party of Arizona was launched by Daniel McCarthy, who lost to U.S. Sen. Martha McSally in the August primary election. Trickovic was also behind an unsuccessful attempt to recall Gov. Doug Ducey over actions taken to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In the video, a woman at an East Valley polling location tells Trickovic that voters were told to use Sharpies and claimed that those ballots weren’t being read by the voting machine, while those who used pens had their ballots easily read.
Trickovic baselessly asserted that anyone who used Sharpies had their vote invalidated. The issue with the Sharpies stems from an earlier interaction Trickovic and his group had at a Queen Creek polling location earlier in the day.
The Patriot Party activists had been gathering signatures at polling sites across the county to launch their new party. At one point, Trickovic and others were handing out ballpoint pens to people entering the polls. Poll workers allegedly told them to hand out Sharpies instead, but they refused, so the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was called, according to another video posted by Trickovic.
“I cannot and will not tell you guys what to do,” an MCSO deputy tells the group in the video. “What we witnessed inside is the electronic machine is having a hard time reading the ballpoint pen.”
The MCSO deputy said that poll workers wanted them to tell the group to stop, but they could not because doing so would violate the group’s First Amendment rights. But the deputy told the activists that the Sharpies were read better by the machine.
One issue brought up in the video shared by Trickovic is that mail-in voters are instructed to use ballpoint pens, and a woman was concerned that those votes will now not be valid. Solorio said that those concerns are not valid, as the ink would have considerable time to dry before those ballots ever reach an election machine.
A woman in Trickovic’s video also falsely claimed that the Secretary of State’s office said that sharpies cannot be used.
“We have been advising people that sharpies are ok to use,” said Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, adding that their office has been sharing information on the use of Sharpies.
But the Sharpie story has been spreading far and wide.
Chan said she has been getting phone calls from people she hasn’t heard from in years who have been seeing posts on social media saying their votes may be invalid if they used a Sharpie.
She’s been having to reassure them that their votes are alright and that election officials have been preparing for this for months, but Chan is still worried about the people in power spreading the Sharpie story.
“It angers me when I see people in positions of authority and responsibility doing this to our populace,” she said.
***UPDATED: This story has been updated with additional information.