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Sharpies, stolen ballots stir conspiracy theories in close election

Winneconne, WI - 16 April 2018: A Super Sharpie permanent marker on an isolated background.

With hundreds of thousands of votes left to count and high-profile races undecided, some Arizona leaders, national pundits and social media provocateurs have already started spreading conspiracies to undermine faith in election results.

One national conservative group is planning a rally outside county offices on Nov. 6 to “protect the vote.” Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced an investigation into claims that Maricopa County disenfranchised GOP voters by giving them Sharpies, though the county provided the felt-tip pens to all voters. 

An oddly timed announcement about recovered stolen ballots raised eyebrows on Tuesday, and national conservative writers are propagating theories that Maricopa County election officials are trying to “steal” the election.  Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said Wednesday mail-in ballots are inherently rife with fraud and he singled out Arizona’s process of counting mail-in ballots along with systems in Michigan and Philadelphia.

“This is very much a strategy to cast doubt on the results of this election,” said Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale. “All along, our president knew that he was losing, he was losing this race, and it was going to be difficult to win, and so they’re making last-ditch efforts to try to try to create a narrative that would allow them to make this process as we move forward, as muddy as possible.”

Chris DeRose, a Republican attorney who was part of the state GOP’s first organized election integrity effort in 2008, likewise said that post-election rumors are “distressing” and undermine an election process that the public should trust.

“These kinds of wild and completely unsupported rumors undermine public confidence in the process,” DeRose said. “This is a fair, professional process that’s proceeding according to plan, and consistent with every previous time we’ve done this.”

SHARPIES AND CANCELLED BALLOTS

Republican leaders including House Majority Leader (and incoming state Sen.) Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, shared unsubstantiated claims that Maricopa County was purposefully giving voters in Republican areas Sharpies to fill out their ballots to invalidate them, citing as proof screenshots of pages showing ballots were “cancelled.”

Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced midday Wednesday that he would be investigating “hundreds” of voter complaints about the use of Sharpies and demanded that Maricopa County answer several questions about the use of those markers by noon on Thursday. A Brnovich spokesman said the office has a responsibility to investigate “any claim of disenfranchisement for a voter that otherwise should be eligible to cast a vote.” 

“The Secretary [of State] and the county recorder can talk about processes and put out whatever sort of videos they want to put out, but they’re not monitoring our inbox for our complaints,” Brnovich spokesman Ryan Anderson said. “They are not talking to voters —  and whether there’s anything there or not, our job — independent outside of the elections officials — is to get to the bottom of allegations of voter fraud or disenfranchisement.”

Maricopa County did provide Sharpies at the polls, to every voter and not just those in conservative areas like Gilbert. And some voters who cast their ballots in person on Election Day did later discover looking online that their early ballots were marked as “cancelled.”

That’s because those voters are on the Permanent Early Voting List and received mail ballots, but opted instead to vote in person on Election Day. One such voter, GOP strategist Timothy Schlum, chronicled his experience voting yesterday in person in Fountain Hills before sharing a screenshot showing that his mail ballot was marked as cancelled.

Every voter is only allowed to vote once, so if someone received a mail ballot tried to vote in person or requested a second early ballot because something went wrong with their original ballot, the mail ballot is cancelled and won’t be counted. 

People who vote in person in Maricopa County know their ballot is accepted and will be counted after they feed it into the tabulation machine at their polling place and see a message confirming that it has been accepted. And if a voter does anything to make the ballot difficult for machines to count — something like drawing errant marks or partially filling one bubble before correcting and fully filling another — a bipartisan team will seek to determine voter intent.

Extra marks, which can be flagged as overvotes, sparked much of the concern about Maricopa County’s use of Sharpies at polling places. The heavy felt pens can bleed through one side of the ballot.

But the design of this year’s ballots included offset bubbles, not a line that voters had to connect. Bleedthrough from one side of the ballot shouldn’t affect bubbles on the other side.

The county landed on Sharpies for Election Day ballots after testing new tabulating machines with high school students early this year, ahead of the first full scale use of the machines in March’s Democratic Presidential Preference Election, said Kat Coleman, who led the recorder’s office communications team at the time.

A partnership between the county recorder’s office and local school districts allows students to use the voting machines to vote on how to spend part of their school’s budget, through a system called participatory budgeting.

Students get to practice democracy and gain familiarity with the voting equipment they’ll see in polling places in a few short years, and the county is able to test how their equipment will function during a high-stress situation. Hundreds of students voting on a single issue during their lunch period can be an effective model for a high-turnout election.

This year, election officials learned from their high school tests that wet ink — common when lines are moving quickly — could smudge ink on ballots and means tabulating machines needed frequent cleaning. Simultaneous tests of pens showed that fine-tip Sharpies dried faster than other pens, so they were provided to in-person voters. 

“In most instances, this is not going to be a problem. Ever,” Coleman said. “But to reduce risk, which is what election administrators are trying to do to make sure that they’re preserving the intent of that vote, a faster drying pen is going to be the preference over having something that could possibly be wet going to the tabulator.”

EIGHTEEN LOST AND FOUND BALLOTS

Brnovich also raised eyebrows Tuesday, just hours before polls closed, by announcing that Glendale workers found 18 stolen mail ballots and returned them to voters on Saturday.

A worker found a stack of ballots under a rock located off 99th and Glendale avenues on Friday afternoon, according to Brnovich’s office. The ballots were unopened, and Glendale police were able to determine that they had been stolen from individual mailboxes in a neighborhood south of 107th and Northern avenues. 

These ballots were stolen before voters received them, leaving weeks in which the 18 affected voters could have requested a new ballot by mail or opted to vote in person. But that wasn’t readily apparent from Brnovich’s eye-catching tweet, which showed a photo of stolen ballots laying in the dirt next to a rock. 

Anderson, Brnovich’s communications director, said the office did not plan to post the news with hours to go before voting centers closed. It just happened the way it did after the office became aware of the ballots on Oct. 31, he said. 

“This would have created even more problems if we did it on Monday,” Anderson said. “We thought it was a good story that ‘Hey, here’s 18 people who otherwise may not have had a chance to vote.’”

Quezada, who represents the neighborhood in question, said he found it odd that Brnovich chose to share that press release on Tuesday afternoon.

“I wondered why that was coming from his office at that time, especially without the additional information, at least in the headline, about the fact that the issues had been resolved,” he said.

CONTINUING TO COUNT

Election officials and Arizona Republicans have been outspoken about false claims from the cofounder of a national conservative magazine that Maricopa County paused counting votes to “steal” the election for Joe Biden.

In a tweet flagged by Twitter for sharing misleading information about an election — but still widely retweeted — Federalist co-founder Sean Davis wrote that it was “pretty obvious” that Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes was “pausing vote counts” in hopes Wisconsin or Michigan got called for Biden.

That is patently untrue. Voters can watch live-streamed video of election workers continuing to verify signatures and count ballots, and the Maricopa County Republican and Democratic parties both appointed election observers who are in the rooms. 

DeRose, the Republican attorney, said the theory was preposterous. He has worked as an attorney on elections in Arizona, New York, California, Illinois and Virginia. 

“The idea that a public official would make that order and the dedicated professionals who have served both Republicans and Democrats would listen, and the  hundreds of people doing the counting would all go along with it, and the well-trained attorneys and election observers wouldn’t notice, it’s totally preposterous,” he said. 

-Staff writer Dillon Rosenblatt contributed to this report

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