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Former GOP Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett walks inside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on April 22, 2021, during setup for an audit of the county's 2020 presidential election results. The audit was ordered by the GOP-led state Senate. (AP) Former GOP Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett walks inside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on April 22, 2021, during setup for an audit of the county's 2020 presidential election results. The audit was ordered by the GOP-led state Senate. (AP)

Former GOP Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett walks inside the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on April 22, 2021, during setup for an audit of the county's 2020 presidential election results. The audit was ordered by the GOP-led state Senate. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher May 4, 2021
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman May 4, 2021

No proof for pro-Trump conspiracy theory of secret watermarks on Ariz. ballots

If Your Time is short

  • Maricopa County says it does not use watermarks on its ballots.  

  • No evidence has emerged that the audit, led by a firm headed by Doug Logan, who was part of the “stop the steal” conspiracy theories about the election, has found any evidence of watermarks.

Nearly six months after Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump, contractors hired by Arizona Senate Republicans are auditing results in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and the state Capitol, where some Republicans have made allegations of widespread voter fraud.

These claims have been dismissed in court and refuted by a sampled hand count of ballots. Maricopa also hired two independent firms to conduct a forensic audit of its tabulation equipment. The audit found no abnormalities.

But a new spin on an old conspiracy theory has emerged during the recount. It builds on a debunked narrative that Trump’s administration put secret watermarks on official ballots to trick cheating Democrats. (Pants on Fire!)

The new version makes allusions to ultraviolet light and an acronym for president that refers to Trump.

"Auditors are now using UV light to scan across all ballots. POTUS told us the 2020 election would be stolen via fake printed ballots. We were right about specially marker ballots all along, the media and left called us all crazy, but we knew," says a post widely shared on Facebook. "The Maricopa audit is confirming the rumors, that real ballots have a special watermark. No wonder the Democrats tried to stall... NCSWIC."

NCSWIC, for "Nothing Can Stop What Is Coming," is used by adherents of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.

With the Facebook post is a photo of three people at machines. The letter Q is above the photo along with this headline: "WATCH THE WATER." 

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.)

The Maricopa County Elections Department confirmed a previous statement that it does not use watermarks or any other "secret markings" on its ballots. And no evidence has emerged that the contractors have found any evidence of watermarks.

Ken Bennett, the state Senate Republicans’ liaison for the audit, told PolitiFact that auditors did initially scan ballots with UV lights to see if there were watermarks. But they are no longer using UV lights, Bennett told PolitiFact on May 3. We told Bennett that Facebook posts state that the audit had confirmed rumors about ballots having a special watermark. 

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"There is no evidence of that and findings would not be released in the middle of the audit anyway, that is pure speculation or made up whatever," said Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state.

QAnon and water

QAnon emerged in October 2017 and is rooted in the unsubstantiated belief that an array of public figures are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles and Trump was in charge of a covert effort to arrest and expose them. Facebook has banned QAnon pages, groups and accounts since October, but posts such as these continue to proliferate.

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. The watermark claim around election day that we fact-checked tried to connect watermarks with "watch the water," as the new claims appears to do. 

Allegations in Arizona

Republicans in November started to raise challenges to the presidential election in Arizona, centering largely on Maricopa County, after Biden narrowly won the state following Trump’s win there in 2016. In March, Senate Republicans announced that they had hired a team, led by a Florida-based technology company called Cyber Ninjas, to conduct the audit.

Cyber Ninjas doesn’t appear to have previous experience in election audits. The firm is led by Doug Logan, who was part of the "stop the steal" conspiracy theories about the election.

A voice mail message left for Logan was not returned.

The outcome of the audit will have no impact on the 2020 election results, which were certified by state officials in November. On Jan. 6, Congress voted to accept those results showing that Biden won Arizona and the presidency.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claims that an audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Ariz., "is confirming the rumors that real ballots have a special watermark" — suggesting that fake ballots could have been cast in an effort to prevent Trump from being re-elected president.

Maricopa County says it does not use watermarks on its ballots.  No evidence has emerged that the audit, led by a firm headed up by a man who was part of the "stop the steal" conspiracy theories about the election, has found any evidence of watermarks.

We rate the post False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, April 29, 2021

USA Today, "Fact check: False QAnon-related conspiracy theory claims Arizona ballots are secretly watermarked," April 28, 2021

Email, Megan Gilbertson, spokesperson, Maricopa County Elections Department, May 3, 2021

NBC News, "Antifa fears, UV lights: What the group running Arizona GOP's election audit tried to keep secret," April 30, 2021

Maricopa County Elections Department, "Just the Facts - Maricopa County Election Updates," April 26, 2021

PolitiFact, "Did President Trump issue secret watermarks on ballots? No, that’s another QAnon conspiracy theory," Nov. 6, 2020

PolitiFact, "No, a quarter million fraudulent votes weren’t uncovered in an Arizona election audit," April 27, 2021

Arizona Republic, "Arizona election auditors are running ballots under UV light. What could they be looking for?", April 28, 2021

Telephone interview, Ken Bennett, state senate Republicans’ liaison to the audit and former Arizona Secretary of State, May 3, 2021

 

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No proof for pro-Trump conspiracy theory of secret watermarks on Ariz. ballots

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