Pen misinformation bleeds into Arizona primary after 2020's 'Sharpiegate' controversy

Election officials in Arizona’s largest county won’t soon forget #SharpieGate — the social media uproar that emerged after the 2020 election based on the false claim that Sharpie pens provided at the polls would ruin ballots before they were counted.

Now, as Maricopa County gears up for Arizona’s primary election on Tuesday, it’s facing a repeat of the same false theories in response to an announcement by election officials that they were switching to Pentel brand felt-tip pens on Election Day.

"DO NOT use the felt tip pen they will try to give you," one Twitter user wrote Thursday.

"#SharpieGate all over again in AZ. Bring your ball-point pens," wrote another, in a tweet that called election officials "treasonists" and accused them of trying to "rig the primaries."

The county provides felt-tip pens to voters at the polls on Election Day because the pens have quick-drying ink that won’t smudge the ballots or produce wet splotches that jam up onsite tabulators. That can require the machines to be cleaned, causing long lines at the polls.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer on Twitter urged those voting in Tuesday’s primary to "PLEASE PLEASE" use the provided pens to prevent machine problems and keep voting running smoothly.

Still, some social media users and prominent Republicans in the state this week encouraged voters to defy that guidance. Republican State Rep. Shawnna Bolick, who is running for secretary of state in Tuesday’s election, tweeted that she planned to bring her own ballpoint pen for in-person voting, while Kelli Ward, chair of the state’s Republican Party, encouraged her Twitter followers to "use whatever pen you want" but ensure their ballot is dry.

Richer said voters who bring their own blue or black pen for Tuesday’s election will not be turned away, but encouraged voters to use those provided.

MORE: 2022 Arizona Primary Elections: What you need to know

"Just as we tell voters they shouldn’t use red pens, shouldn’t use pencil, shouldn’t use crayon, we are telling voters that – to help us ensure an accurate and smooth election – you should use the Pentel pen if you are voting in-person on election day," Richer told The Associated Press in an email.

Richer said the county switched from Sharpies to Pentel pens "after many tests" because while both have quick-drying ink, the Pentel pens cause less bleed-through on ballot paper. Even though offset columns on the county’s ballots prevent bleeding ink from affecting the vote counting process, even for two-sided ballots, the bleed-through from Sharpies caused many poll observers and online critics to raise alarm in 2020.

Some social media users this week expressed confusion at why early voters in Maricopa County are permitted to use any blue or black pen, while Election Day voters are instructed to use the felt-tip pens only. The answer: All early ballots, whether submitted in-person, by mail or by drop box, are enclosed in envelopes and sent to central tabulation after processing, so they have sufficient time to dry before being counted, Richer said.


A Sharpie brand marker sits on a table in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 5, 2020. - Allegations of fraud and foul play in the 2020 election spread across the internet on November 4 as officials counted ballots in battleground states that will determin