Fact check: Tabulation machines in Arizona can read ballots marked with Sharpie pens

As ballot-counting continues in some states after the U.S. presidential election, users on social media have raised concerns about the use of Sharpies for marking ballots in Arizona, a key battleground state in the race between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican President Donald Trump. Some posts allege that tabulation machines “can’t read sharpies.” This is false.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

A screenshot of an Instagram story with the allegation reads: “Pens were switched to sharpies by democratic vote watchers in AZ polling location…the scanners can’t read sharpie.” Posts with this image are visible here , here , and here .

State authorities have clarified that ballots marked with sharpies will not be disqualified. Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs reiterated on Fox News that all ballots are being counted here   and tweeted here : “If you voted a regular ballot in-person, your ballot will be counted, no matter what kind of pen you used (even a Sharpie)!”

Reuters sought comment from the manufacturers of the voting equipment used in Arizona ( here ). Election Systems & Software (ES&S) is used throughout the state and Dominion Voting (, ) was used in Maricopa County. Both companies confirmed their tabulators read Sharpie. Unisyn Voting Solutions ( ), which was used in Yavapai county, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Katina Granger, Public Relations Manager at ES&S, told Reuters via email that the company “recommend(s) black pens, but black felt tip pens such as a Sharpie are fine.” Granger added that a bleed-through “is only an issue if the ink should bleed through to an oval on the back of the ballot. Should that occur, that is easily recognizable for correction.”

Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for Dominion Voting, told Reuters via email that “Sharpie pens are safe and reliable to use on ballots.” The company’s system “never allow(s) for the creation of ballots with overlapping vote bubbles between front and back pages of a ballot.”

The state has a clear protocol to resolve the “bleed-through” issue and ensure votes will be counted. For example, the government of Pima County here ensured that in the unlikely scenario that ballot tabulating machines cannot read a ballot marked with a felt tip pen, “the ballot will most likely get sent for duplication so it can be read by the scanner.”

As explained by the Election Assistance Commission, ballot duplication is the official process for replacing ballots that can’t be read due to any damage or incorrect marking ( here , further explained here ).

(This is also stated in the Elections Manual of the State of Arizona ( here page 201): “The Ballot Duplication Board duplicates ballots that cannot be read by the tabulation machine but on which the voter has nonetheless clearly indicated their intent to vote on a particular race or ballot measure. This may include crumpled or otherwise damaged ballots, ballots with smudged ink, or ballots which are marked in the wrong color of ink or with a device that cannot be read by the tabulation machine.”)

In Maricopa County, the scene of a viral video here and here , in which a man alleges that poll workers were “forcing people to use sharpies and those votes weren’t being counted”, Sharpies were being recommended and provided in the voting centers for their fast-drying ink ( ).

As explained in a video by the Maricopa County Elections Department here , due to a new ballot style used by the county, which now includes off-centered columns, bleed-throughs do not mark the ovals on the other side of the ballot. 

Diana Solorio, Public Information Officer of the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, told Reuters by phone that the county had provided these markers to all voters, regardless of voting preference, since early voting started. Solorio reiterated that the use of a sharpie marker does not invalidate the ballots.

While Arizona authorities have communicated that the tabulation machines used in the state can read sharpies and said repeatedly that all votes will be counted, the Office of the Arizona Attorney General (AG) sent an inquiry to the Elections Department of Maricopa County on Nov. 4 ( here ) following “hundreds of voter complaints”.

Ryan Anderson, Director of Communications of the Arizona AG’s Office, told Reuters via email on Nov. 4 that more than 500 complaints had been received “from voters complaining about the use of Sharpies in polling locations on Election Day”, with some saying their ballots “were rejected or not counted” because of Sharpie use.

“At this point, the allegations are just that. We are working diligently to sort through the complaints and determine if any evidence exists of actual disenfranchisement,” he said. “Given the charged political environment we are living in,” he added, it is a priority to “ensure that we take all election integrity complaints seriously and work to instill confidence in our voting and our election institutions.”

On Nov. 4, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors responded to voters’ concerns in a letter here .

In response to these unsubstantiated rumors circulating on social media, Trump supporters, some with rifles and handguns, gathered outside an election center in Maricopa County on Nov. 4 ( here ).

A Reuters report covered the “Sharpiegate” allegations,  here .


False. Tabulation machines in Arizona can read Sharpie. Maricopa County preferred Sharpie use because they dry quickly. Ballots in the county are designed so that bleed-throughs do not interfere with tabulation. The Elections Manual of Arizona also states safeguard protocols to process ballots that cannot be read by the tabulation machine but on which the voter’s intent is clear.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here  .