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Sharpie pens on display in a store. (AP) Sharpie pens on display in a store. (AP)

Sharpie pens on display in a store. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher November 5, 2020

Despite #sharpiegate, no evidence of plot to use the pens to cancel Trump votes

If Your Time is short

  • Some in-person voters complained that election officials gave them Sharpie pens at their polling place and that the ink spoiled and invalidated their ballots.

  • In some cases, Sharpies are actually recommended as the best type of pen to use on ballots, and election officials have taken steps to guard against ink “bleed-through” on ballots.

  • There is no evidence that elections officials used Sharpies to invalidate ballots.

With Joe Biden edging closer to the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency, but with ballots in battleground states still being counted, President Donald Trump and his supporters made false charges of "surprise ballot dumps" and outright voter fraud.

It seemed no claim of efforts to deny Trump a second term was too far-fetched — even the notion that election workers, in plain view at polling sites, intentionally gave pens to Trump voters that would invalidate their ballots.

The text of one image shared widely on Facebook on Nov. 4, the day after the election, stated:

"If you were forced to use a Sharpie to fill your ballot, call the number below for your state. That is voter fraud."

"That is voter fraud" appeared in red lettering in the image.

The image included a Sharpie pen and phone numbers identified as election hotlines for 15 states, primarily those that were battlegrounds for Trump and the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. (The first number we tried, for Ohio, was for a Trump campaign office. Democrats have their own "voter protection" hotlines, too.)

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

Experts say it is rare but not impossible that filling in an oval with a Sharpie marker could cause a "bleed-through" that would cause a voting machine to initially not read a ballot.

But in some states, election officials prefer Sharpies because they lead to ballots being processed more smoothly. And there is no evidence election workers gave out Sharpies with the aim to invalidate ballots, or that any widespread spoiling of Sharpie-penned ballots occurred.

Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he is "not aware of cases where an election official said the Sharpie was fine and then the ballot was invalidated. Of course, every machine is different. But when the election officials themselves are saying this isn’t a problem, I’m going to believe them."

Arizona’s Sharpiegate

As we found in a previous fact-check about Arizona, one version of the conspiracy theory is that Sharpies were foisted on Trump supporters because those markers wouldn’t be read by election machines and those ballots would be invalidated. That’s False.

In Maricopa County, Ariz., home to metropolitan Phoenix, voters could use ink pens to fill out their ballots, but the county gave Sharpie markers to voters because ballots filled in with Sharpie pens are processed more precisely by voting machines. 

FactCheck.org, Lead Stories and other fact-checkers reached similar conclusions. So did the New York Times. A USA Today fact-check rated a similar claim in Michigan as false. 

Featured Fact-check

Since then, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, saying it had received hundreds of complaints from residents, asked the Maricopa County Elections Department for information about the use of Sharpies and any instances of ballots being rejected because of bleed-throughs.

But officials and experts have repeatedly knocked down #sharpiegate claims, which have been shared by the president’s son, Eric Trump, among other Republicans.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs tweeted on Nov. 4: 

"IMPORTANT: If you voted a regular ballot in-person, your ballot will be counted, no matter what kind of pen you used (even a Sharpie)!"

Here’s what we know

A letter dated Nov. 4 to voters from the Republican chairman and the only Democratic member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors explained why Sharpies were recommended and provided to voters.

"We did extensive testing on multiple different types of ink with our new vote tabulation equipment. Sharpies are recommended by the manufacturer because they provide the fastest-drying ink," it said. "The offset columns on ballots ensure that any bleed-through will not affect your vote."

The federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s website addressed the Sharpie falsehood in a "Rumor vs. Reality" column about the election. 

"If a ballot has issues that impact its ability to be scanned, it can be hand counted or duplicated, or adjudicated by election officials, who use defined procedures such as chain of custody to ensure ballot secrecy and integrity," the website states.

The Election Integrity Partnership, whose members include Stanford University and the University of Washington, was tracking #sharpiegate as it emerged on social media platforms. It called bleed-throughs rare and easily remedied per state "voter intent" laws.

"There is no evidence of a plot to disenfranchise voters by passing out Sharpies at polling stations," the group wrote.

Katina Granger, spokeswoman for Election Systems and Software, a voting system vendor, told PolitiFact:

"We recommend black pens but, to be clear, black felt-tip pens such as a Sharpie are fine as long as there’s not heavy bleed-through. Bleed-through is only an issue if the ink should bleed through to an oval on the back of the ballot. Should that occur, that is easily recognizable to the voter and the ballot is sorted out for further review."

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed: "If you were forced to use a Sharpie" to fill out your ballot, "that is voter fraud."

Some in-person voters complained that election officials gave them Sharpie pens at their polling place and that the ink spoiled and invalidated their ballots. In some cases, Sharpies are actually recommended as the best type of pen to use on ballots, and election officials have taken steps to guard against ink "bleed-through" on ballots. There is no evidence that elections officials used Sharpies to invalidate ballots.

We rate the statement False.

 

Our Sources

Facebook, post (archived here), Nov. 4, 2020

Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, "#PROTECT2020 RUMOR VS. REALITY," accessed Nov. 5, 2020

Email, National Association of State Election Directors, Nov. 5, 2020

USA Today, "Fact check: Sharpie is 'perfectly fine' for Michigan ballots. In some counties, it is 'preferred,’" Nov. 5, 2020

Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, letter to Maricopa County voters, Nov. 4, 2020

Twitter, Election Integrity Partnership tweets, Nov. 4, 2020

Twitter, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs tweet, Nov. 4, 2020

Email, David Becker, executive director at the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that works to improve the efficiency of election administration, Nov. 4, 2020

Email, Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Nov. 5, 2020

Email, Lacy Crawford Jr., spokesman, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Nov. 5, 2020

Arizona Republic, "How the disproved 'Sharpiegate' conspiracy theory made Arizona a national media punchline," Nov. 4, 2020

Email, Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Nov. 4, 2020

New York Times, "No, Sharpies Aren’t Invalidating Ballots in Arizona," Nov. 4, 2020

Email, Katina Granger, Public Relations Manager, Election Systems & Software, a voting system vendor, Nov. 4, 2020

AFP Fact Check, "Sharpie pens will not invalidate Arizona ballots," Nov. 4, 2020

Associated Press, "Bleeding Sharpies on ballots cause vote count controversy," Nov. 5, 2020

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More by Tom Kertscher

Despite #sharpiegate, no evidence of plot to use the pens to cancel Trump votes

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