The innocuous Sharpie has become the 2020 presidential election’s most befuddling flashpoint, and, according to President Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters, the crux of a Democratic plot to steal the election.
Within hours of the polls closing in Arizona, a claim went viral in local Facebook groups that certain ballots filled out with Sharpies — the felt-tipped pen ubiquitous to American homes and offices and favored by the president himself — could not be read by vote-scanning machines in Maricopa County. It started out locally, fueled by videos of people saying some voters had used Sharpies and then experienced problems getting their ballots scanned. It went viral statewide, was talked about on several pro-Trump Facebook groups and got brought up in smaller internet forums frequented by robust MAGA personalities.
It wasn’t true.
There was no evidence for it. Arizona officials confirmed repeatedly that its machines were capable of reading Sharpie-marked ballots.
But only 15 hours later, it became the basis for Trump’s most high-profile allies to call Arizona’s results into doubt and save the election. On Wednesday morning, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp tweeted about #SharpieGate — as it had inevitably become known — and upbraided Twitter after the company labeled his tweet as containing false information. From there, other prominent conservatives in Trumpworld picked up the thread, including Trump’s own children. It popped up on TikTok and flourished on 4Chan.
On a radio call-in show, Jay Sekulow — Trump’s lawyer during his impeachment hearings — latched onto claims like one from a caller that called SharpieGate “the scandal of the century” to flog the narrative. And in a sign that the MAGA fringes were now on the case, a QAnon-supporting candidate for Arizona governor announced that he would be holding a protest outside the Capitol, asking that followers “Bring your Sharpies and hold them high.”
It caught the eye of government officials. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, sent a formal letter to the Maricopa County elections department demanding a full account of how the Sharpies had been used in voting.
Then it spilled into the real world. On Wednesday night, Trump supporters, many waving flags and shouting campaign slogans, also took to the streets outside of the Maricopa County elections department to demand that officials recount the vote, according to videos widely shared on social media.
MAGA world’s swift adoption of the baseless theory reflects the way Trump has governed for four years. First, Trump promotes broad conspiracies that erode trust in public institutions, like the months he spent warning his opponents would “steal” the election. Then, his more extreme supporters search for examples of that narrative — valid or not — in their own surroundings. After that, professional MAGA figures step in to amplify the situation.
“Misinformation campaigns like the one with the Sharpie are focusing on very specific regions,” said Graham Brookie, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks online misinformation. “This isn’t about a nationwide narrative. It’s about people using very localized instances of suspected (and false) wrongdoing to push a broader narrative that fits with their specific political viewpoint.”
Indeed, Arizona isn’t the only election hotspot that has seen disinformation go viral. Earlier that day, MAGA influencers had shared misconstrued stories about poll watchers and voters being turned away from their local polling stations in Pennsylvania. In Georgia, two GOP poll workers alleged having seen 53 ballots added to the total tally after the 7 p.m. deadline — a charge that a Georgia judge threw out, citing a lack of evidence.
The ongoing spread of the initial theory — and not the ultimate debunking — is what matters, said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a progressive watchdog group that monitors extremist and conservative media. The conspiracy theory continues to spread even after it had been debunked and explained, a phenomenon Carusone called the phenomenon a “zombie lie.”
“This is one of those situations where it’s infected a bunch of different platforms, then continues to spread, even though it’s been debunked,” he said.
The alleged #SharpieGate plot, Caursone added, is just simple enough to make intuitive sense to suspicious voters — enough to overlook the theory’s evident deficiencies.
As several callers told Sekulow, they’d never used a sharpie while filling out ballots — only ballpoint pens or No. 2 pencils — because they had been concerned that the permanent ink was bleeding through the paper ballot, or spreading outside the bubble.
“I’ve been talking to others on Facebook, my friends, in my community, all reporting the same thing — missing votes across our county,” a panicked voter told Sekulow. A guest on the show called it “voter fraud.”
According to a video Maricopa County published on Oct. 24, Sharpies — at home and at the ballot box — are compatible with their scanners, and were actually the best choice for filling out ballots, due to their fast-drying ink. On Tuesday, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors reaffirmed that Sharpie’d ballots would be counted, and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told CNN that “even if the machines can’t read them for some reason, a marker bled through to the other side, we have ways to count them. They’re going to be counted.” Other states like Florida, when using pens instead of sharpies in their own elections, have seen longer lines because it takes more time to fill in ballots.
But Trumpworld has a vested interest in raising doubt about the Arizona tally, given Biden’s narrow lead as the state’s remaining ballots are counted. So MAGA world keeps sharing #SharpieGate, flouting social media giants’ decisions to kill the hashtag, as Facebook did, or slap their claims with fact checks, as Twitter has done.
“If a narrative develops in the next 12-24 hours, they can be quickly shared without the companies being able to stop it. All you need is a few influencers to pounce on them,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “If you have a lot of people sharing a common narrative that’s been pre-seeded before the election, you have to see it as an overall story arc, not as a one-off event.”
And if Trump ultimately loses, SharpieGate would help give MAGA world the excuses to explain away how a red state flipped blue.
“It’s a little bit like a ping-pong table, because it’s kind of hitting wherever it can stick,” said Carusone.