“SharpieGate” Resurfaces: Archived Web Captures Reveal More

  • by:
  • Source: UncoverDC
  • 09/19/2023
  • SharpieGate resurfaces with a historical review of archived posts from the Maricopa County Recorder. On October 26, 2020, guidance for the use of Sharpies changed, and voters were instructed to use Sharpie markers to fill out their ballots. 
  • Voting machines and ballots were changed for the Democratic Presidential Preference Election in March 2020. The equipment and ballots were used in all ensuing elections. The equipment and ballots were changed, in part, so that voters could use Sharpies that are "fast drying." YET, the guidance discouraging the use of Sharpies stayed in place until October 26.
  • SB1135 was put in place in February of 2020 to authorize new tabulating equipment and to set guidance for ballot duplication procedures. 
  • Kelly Dixon wrote an email to staff on October 22, 2020, instructing them to have voters use "ballpoint pens instead of markers between 10/23 and 11/2." In that same email, Dixon told clerks and voters that they "NEED to use Sharpies on Election Day."

Much has resurfaced about the use of Sharpies pens in Arizona's Maricopa County November election. Research into various archived pages on the Maricopa County Recorder website shows different versions of guidance on the use of Sharpies on ballots. Also resurfacing are the changes in the paper ballots and machines that were installed in March of 2020 for the Democratic Presidential Preference Election.

A deep dive into archived links on the Maricopa County Recorder website has exposed a bigger story concerning Sharpie-Gate, especially in the context of the July 15, Arizona Senate Forensic Audit Hearing.

UncoverDC has put together a timeline to clarify and organize the available information relating to guidance on Sharpies. Official statements and emails by Maricopa County officials from October of 2018 well into 2021 concerning the paper used and recommended writing implements for marking the ballots are all reviewed in order of their occurrence.


October 22, 2018

  • Maricopa County Recorder, Adrian Fontes, was made aware of issues with Sharpies and his 5-page letter to the Board of Supervisors in 2018 mentioned the issue. A hand count of 100,000 ballots was initiated due to the use of Sharpies. Excerpt below:

Adrian Fontes October 22, 2018 letter

April 8, 2019

  • Adrian Fontes continues to talk about the need to fill out ballots with a black or blue ink pen. "Do not use marker or Sharpie as they tend to bleed through and will damage your ballot."

February 3, 2020

  • SB1135 elections and electronic adjudication bill passed Feb. 3, 2020, and signed by Governor Ducey, "if the emergency clause is enacted."

The reason emergency clause is put in bills is that key legislators deem it to be that important” per UncoverDC's discussion on Tuesday with Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem. He summarizes the significance of the emergency clause below:

"There are 60 members in the house total and 30 members in the Senate total. In order for the emergency clause to apply 45, members of the House and 20 members of the Senate must vote in the affirmative for the bill. Otherwise, the bill can pass, with a simple majority but not take effect until 90 days after sine die. If it passes both chambers, the emergency clause prevails, taking effect immediately upon signature of Governor. If only simple majority passes bill, it takes effect 90 days after sine die."

The bill provides specific guidelines for the electronic vote adjudication feature in the tabulation of ballots. It also provides specific procedures for duplication of ballots in the adjudication process, requiring serialization, logging of the ballots, and sound retention policies for both the original and the digital duplicate of the ballot:

August 20, 2020

  • Fontes allowed voters on the August 4 election to cross out mistakes per reporting by AZCentral—new in 2020.

Fontes Says Cross Out Mistakes

Crossing out mistakes is a chain-of-custody issue. When a voter crosses out a mistake instead of destroying the ballot and obtaining a new one, it leaves open the possibility of another person marking the ballot later, for example, during adjudication.

Voters were allowed to cross out mistakes in the August election, according to AZCentral.

September 16, 2020

“Do I need a special pen to mark my ballot?"
A standard black or blue ballpoint pen is sufficient. Do not use red ink or permanent marker. This may result in a false read by our ballot tabulation machines.”

September 19, 2020

  • Adrian Fontes is still arguing to cross out mistakes, saying it is "perfectly legal."
  • In early September, "the Supreme Court ruled the county must not issue any instructions on how to correct a ballot. Instead, they must point voters to pick up a new ballot," abc15 reported.
  • Fontes pushes back:

"If you do make a mistake on your ballot, and you send it to our office, we know how to deal with it. We have instructions not only in law but in the procedures manual on how to deal with it. I was ordered to give a different instruction, but that doesn't change the fact that what I just said it's perfectly legal."

  • As Alexander Kolodin, the attorney representing The Public Integrity Alliance who filed the "cease and desist" against crossing out mistakes, said:

"[Fontes] wasn't telling people the consequences of following his instruction, was that the ballot would be spit out and counted by humans instead of by machine...The law says that the instructions that the reporter must get is that is somebody who is on the early voting list messes up their ballot, they have to get a new ballot."

"Legitimacy is important in [the] election, and the longer it takes to get a count, the more people are going to question the legitimacy of the election, we cannot afford that this year."

September 24, 2020

“Do not use red ink or permanent marker. This may result in a false read by our ballot tabulation machines."

Maricopa County Recorder/Sept. 24/Sharpies

Do Not Use Sharpies/September 2020

October 17, 2020

  • The Maricopa Recorder talks about a device that “prints out a durable paper copy of the voter’s ballot that is fed through tabulator at every polling location.” These are the new machines referenced as having changed starting in the March election due to the passing of SB1135.

October 18, 2020

  • Maricopa County Recorder website reiterates that “a standard black or blue ballpoint pen is sufficient. Do not use red ink or permanent marker. This may result in a false read by our ballot tabulation machines."

If the equipment was changed and Sharpies could be used without worry because of the changes in ballots and equipment, why are Sharpies still discouraged on October 18? The same guidance held on October 21, the last date before the guidance changed—at least with the available, archived website information.

October 22, 2020

  • In an email, Kelly Dixon wrote: “Starting tomorrow, 10/23, and through 11/2, we are asking that Clerks hand voters BALLPOINT PENS rather than markers. We NEED to use Markers on Election Day, but for now and through 11/2, hand voters a Ballpoint Pen.”

October 26, 2020

  • The Maricopa County Elections Department posted a Tweet and a video about the use of Sharpies. Guidance to actually USE Sharpies was now public.
  • The same was reflected on the archived version of the Maricopa County Recorder's website. The wording from their website is below, as well as the tweet sent on the same day:

“Voters at home may use ballpoint pen in black or blue ink or a Sharpie. Vote Centers use fine tip Sharpies as they have the fastest drying ink, therefore preventing smudges when put through the Vote Center Tabulation equipment. This is one of the upgrades of our new equipment and new ballots. Do not use red or red adjacent ink." They also posted a tweet on October 26.

Maricopa Recorder Website/Sharpie guidance/Oct. 26, 2020


November 3, 2020

  • The change indicated on October 26 is referred to again by the Maricopa County Elections Election Day Tweet, stating Sharpies can be used on ballots:

November 4, 2020

  • A letter is sent from Clint Hickman, Chairman MCBOS, and Steve Gallardo Supervisor, District 5. An excerpt from the letter is below:

Sharpies Do Not Invalidate Ballots/Hickman Letter

Hickman Letter/Nov. 4, 2020

Below is a screen capture of tweets indicating the use of Sharpies on ballots was "not a problem."

How It Went/Tracy Beanz

  • Katie Hobbs Tweets on Election Day to talk about "canceled" status on mail-in and early ballots.

  • Also, a two-page letter from Brnovich to Scott Jarrett, Director of Elections, with specific questions about Sharpies.

Brnovich Letter Questions Sharpies

  • The hand count of the election started at 6:08 pm when "the Maricopa County Chairs of the Republican, Democrat and Libertarian Party met to select the polling places (vote centers) races and early ballot audit batches to be audited."
  • The Laurie Aguilera lawsuit on Sharpies is filed, with the complaint focused on Aguilera being instructed to use a Sharpie pen at her polling station and noticing the bleedthrough occurring while marking her ballot.

November 5, 2020

  • Maricopa County says Sharpie complaints are pointless.

  • The Maricopa County Recorder sent a 3-page letter answering questions about Sharpies. It was sent to Michael Catlett, Deputy Solicitor General to Brnovich, the AZ Attorney General. The letter says Sharpies don't bleed through. CyberNinjas, in the course of their forensic ballot analysis, found they did. The letter says that staggering (offset) prevents false votes. However, given the calibration issues also discovered, the bleed-through of the Sharpies did cause issues. CyberNinjas documented that the alignment of ballots was off by 3200 percent in some cases. A summary of the excerpt is below:

Letter About Sharpies/Liddy/Allister Adel Maricopa County

The Full Allister Adel letter:

Allister Adel Letter/Answer About Sharpies/November 5, 2020

  • Brnovich answers Adel on the same day, stating, "AGO was satisfied that the mere use of Sharpie brand markers at voting centers did not result in disenfranchisement."

Brnovich Letter/Okays Sharpies

  • A two-page letter from SoS Katie Hobbs to Deputy Solicitor General Michael Catlett "rips Brnovich" for Sharpie investigation. She states that it is a "false assumption that using Sharpies on a ballot causes ballots to be rejected, spoiled, or canceled."

Hobbs November 5 Letter to Catlett

November 9, 2020

  • Video on ballots and offsets and Sharpies. The video says that new ballots prevent issues with bleedthrough because of offsets and the fact that the machine only reads ovals.

You can view other pertinent Voting videos from Maricopa Votes.

November 17, 2020

  • Chairman Hickman sends a letter to Maricopa County Voters about the audit and how "reliable" the election was.

Chairman Hickman Letter to Voters

February 23, 2021

  • Video on Election equipment tests by Pro V&V and SLI Compliance Forensic Audit.

July 15, 2021 Hearing

Why We Are Talking About Sharpies Again: The July 15 Hearing

Doug Logan testified that it looks as though four different types of paper were used in the election, mentioning Vote Secure paper. Per reporting by UncoverDC, Logan explained:

"Maricopa County specifically had indicated that they were using  “Vote Secure” paper. As previously mentioned, the special paper is designed to prevent problems with calibration and bleed-through. Logan explained, “This is an indication of problems that could cause an overvote situation or cause votes to be cast for a different candidate than intended.” As a reminder, Petersen remarked that “Sharpie-gate” happened in Maricopa and “the Maricopa elections people came back and said that bleed-through ‘would not have affected other votes’.”

The paper is important because Vote Secure paper is a specified thickness and it is a coated paper that discourages bleed through. Per above, the archived link from the Maricopa County Recorder website on October 17 shows specific language referencing "a durable paper copy of the voter's ballot" as what is being fed through tabulators at the polling location. The county seems to claim it was using the proper paper Logan alluded to in his testimony.

The Arizona Senate hearing on July 15 also revealed calibration and offset issues with paper ballots and a suspected use of paper that did not meet specifications.

Two excerpts from the July 15 UncoverDC article are found below. The information pertains to the markers and ballot paper, as explained by Cyber Ninjas, Doug Logan.

"There were ballot offsets in 168,000 on-demand, election day ballots due to poorly aligned printing issues. Logan stated that more work needs to be done to find out what printers caused those offsets and where those ballots were printed. Ballots were calibrated so poorly, in some cases they were 3200 percent off the mark."

Because Sharpies were used in many cases in the November 2020 election, Logan's testimony may be significant if not critical to understanding the high adjudication rate of 11.27 percent in Maricopa County—one that is normally 2 percent. Some of the paper may not have been Vote Secure coated paper. Many ballots may have been affected by the use of Sharpies. Offsets that didn't meet specifications may have caused ballots to be kicked out in adjudication.

The UncoverDC article continues:

"Notably, there was also a discussion of the ballot paper which should not allow bleed-through. A “Just the Facts” flier was sent out in June of 2021 by the Maricopa Elections Department. The flier showed details on the ballots used, the paper used, the importance of ballot alignment and other critical details of elections to reassure the voters of Arizona about the security of their election."

"The auditors noticed significant differences in the thickness of the paper in many instances. Vote Secure paper is usually used in elections and has a certain coating and characteristic thickness. Bleed-through is an incredibly important kinematic artifact because it can skew votes (ballot offsets), resulting in voters not voting for their intended candidate."

Arizona Informer Thread on Chain of Custody and Election Changes For Pandemic

Finally, a thread by the Arizona Informer points out several significant election-related issues in August of 2020.

Many election procedures were changed due to the pandemic. Mail-in ballots were used to a much greater degree.

Polling centers were used instead of precinct voting. So the votes were not as "local" and allowed voters to go to any polling center—which put tremendous pressure on workers in those centers to process ballots. You can watch this Senate hearing on signature verification degradation by clicking here.

Remedies and Questions Remain

As Logan indicated, "More work needs to be done to find out what printers caused those offsets and where those ballots were printed." If, indeed, the wrong paper was used in some cases, what is the impact of the use of the wrong paper given Sharpies were used?

If the calibration on the ballots was off by unacceptable amounts in many cases, as indicated by Logan, what was the impact on the vote— given the fact that even the new machines had standards of calibration that were not met? Maybe the calibration issues were part of the reason for the high adjudication rates, which could, in turn, result in the disenfranchisement of voters.

Why was the guidance on Sharpies a moving target almost all the way up to Election Day—with Dixon giving such specific guidelines for using ballpoint pens from 10/23 to 11/2 and then instructing the "NEED" to use Sharpies on November 3?

For further discussion, UncoverDC's Dark To Light Podcast explores the timeline and these issues on Monday with Arizona Senate Whip Sonny Borrelli.

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