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This is a bogus conspiracy theory.
The federal government has no role in printing ballots or in the on-the-ground mechanics of elections. The responsibility lies with state and local governments.
Some states may require a watermark on ballots, but there is no evidence of a secret Trump-issued watermark on “official ballots.”
As the nation waited for the presidential election results, a QAnon-related conspiracy theory began making the rounds on social media. Supposedly, President Donald Trump and the Department of Homeland Security set up Democrats (who allegedly aimed to cheat) by secretly watermarking "official ballots."
A widely shared version of the claim on Facebook said, "Consider: Dept. of Homeland Security controlled ‘official ballots’ production. Dems print extras, not knowing about non-radioactive isotope watermarks on ‘official ballots.’ Military sting operation. After weeding out all counterfeit ballots, Trump landslide confirmed."
Another related post referred to an old QAnon thread and said, in part: "The ‘watch the water’ intel refers to .....THE WATERMARK on the official election ballots!!!!"
This is bogus.
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.)
First, the federal government doesn’t print or issue ballots.
Instead, the responsibility lies with local governments, which usually contract with various printing companies and work with the U.S. Postal Service for design approval. Several news organizations have published stories that detail the printing process, including the increased demand for mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the biggest printing vendors is Runbeck Election Services, which maintains a 90,000-square-foot facility in Phoenix.
The company’s president and chief operating officer, Jeff Ellington, discussed the process with NPR in May, saying that getting ballots to the right voters is a complicated, multi-step process.
"States need to decide what their ballots will look like and to get approval from the U.S. Postal Service for the design of the envelopes," Ellington told the news organization. "After those envelopes are secured, companies like Runbeck step in."
In 2018, former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called on state and local election officials to ensure that ballots used during the 2020 presidential election can be audited. But this doesn’t involve the agency printing the ballots for states. It was a reminder to local officials to maintain a system of verifiable ballots to ensure security from foreign adversaries that may seek to interfere in future U.S. elections.
In 2019, the department's cybersecurity agency announced it would partner with election officials and election nonprofit VotingWorks to develop an auditing tool known as Arlo, which is provided to state election officials for free.
As for the watermark claims, "the watch the water" comment comes from a February 2018 QAnon thread, known as a "Q drop," which are cryptic messages that the central figure of the conspiracy theory posts for followers to decipher.
No one on the two-year-old message thread interpreted "water" to mean "watermark," but the recent Facebook post tried to connect the two.
Watermarks do appear on some states’ ballots, like California’s, but there is no secret watermark on all ballots that was issued by the federal government to catch would-be cheaters.
QAnon is a baseless conspiracy theory based on posts from Q, an anonymous internet persona who claims to be a government insider with information on a "deep state" plot against Trump.
A QAnon-related conspiracy theory claims that Trump, with the help of the Department of Homeland Security, added secret watermarks to ballots in order to catch Democrats cheating.
The federal government doesn’t print ballots or play an active role in the mechanics of elections. State and local governments are in charge of administering elections, including printing ballots, which is typically contracted with printing companies.
We rate this Pants on Fire.
This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here, for more.
Facebook post, Nov. 4, 2020
Facebook post, Nov. 5, 2020
The New York Times, The 2020 presidential election will require more absentee ballots than any election in American history, Oct. 26, 2020
The Wall Street Journal, Voting by Mail? These Companies Are Rushing to Print Your Ballot, Aug. 21, 2020
National Conference of State Legislatures, Election Administration at State and Local Levels, Feb. 3, 2020
FactCheck.org, Bogus QAnon Claim that Mail-In Ballots Are Illegitimate, Nov. 5, 2020
NPR, Ballot Printers Increase Capacity To Prepare For Mail Voting Surge, May 3, 2020
The Hill, DHS chief calls on officials in all 50 states to have 'verifiable' ballots by 2020 election, Aug. 22, 2018.
California Secretary of State, California Code of Regulations Title 2. Administration Division 7. Secretary of State Chapter 4. Ballot Printing, Accessed Nov. 6, 2020
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