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Bill aims to disallow Sharpies to be used on ballots

By: - January 14, 2021 5:42 pm

Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

A bill at the Arizona legislature aims to prevent counties from requiring that specific markers or any other pen be used that may damage a ballot after a debunked claim that they spoiled ballots during the November election spread across social media during the election. 

For the first time ever in 2020, Arizona voters were given Sharpie permanent markers to mark their ballots at Arizona polls this year, and their use 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. 

Senate Bill 1023 by Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, would bar county boards of supervisors from requiring that a specific marking pen be used on paper ballots and “shall not provide for use on ballots any pen that creates marks that are visible on the reverse side of the paper ballot or that otherwise may damage or cause a ballot to be spoiled.” 

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. 

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich launched an investigation into the use of Sharpies; less than a day later, he concluded that the “use of Sharpie markers did not result in disenfranchisement of Arizona voters.” 

“There was a lot of confusion regarding both types of pens,” Townsend said in a text message to Arizona Mirror, adding that Sharpies created bleed through and ballpoint pens clogged machine readers. “This caused inconsistencies around the State as to what pens to use, and whether or not sharpies were allowed, good to use, or problematic.” 

Many voters and officials were concerned about bleed-through of the markers on the ballots, something election officials said they had accounted for with the design of the ballots which were larger to accommodate for any bleed through.

Election officials had been attempting to educate voters about the change a few weeks prior, and the change to use Sharpies had been known to the counties. 

“I would like consistency statewide, which is the genesis of the bill,” Townsend said when asked by the Mirror if the “Sharpiegate” controversy is what spurred the creation of the legislation.

In the days after the election, Townsend expressed interest in the Sharpiegate controversy, tweeting out her intention to speak with constituents about it and find out “who ordered” their use. 

Every county runs its own election and uses equipment it purchases. Elections officials have said Maricopa County’s new vote-counting machines required the change in preferred pens.

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 is closely tied do 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.

Misinformation and conspiracy theories such as “Sharpiegate” spread like wildfire in the days following the election in Arizona, including claims that out-of-state volunteers were counting ballots and that Republicans were not present during the process. All of those rumors were unfounded. 

Legal challenges to the vote have also focused on the Sharpie controversy, however, those cases were dismissed

The bill has not yet been assigned to committee.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.