PHOENIX, AZ/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Unsubstantiated claims alleging some votes cast for President Donald Trump were not counted in Maricopa County, Arizona - an important battleground in the 2020 U.S. election - because voters used Sharpie pens began spreading among right-wing social media accounts on Tuesday night as election results trickled in.
Dubbed “Sharpiegate” by conservatives on social media, the allegations could be used to try to undermine election results in the historically Republican state of Arizona, which the Associated Press called for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden with 51% of the vote.
Similar rumors about Sharpies or other writing tools and ballots have circulated in Chicago, Michigan, Massachusetts and Connecticut in recent days.
Maricopa County officials were trying to inform voters that Sharpies did not interfere with ballots, and had posted a video explaining that on Election Day.
The county - which includes Arizona's biggest city, Phoenix - last year rolled out new tabulation equipment that made Sharpie pens the best option on Election Day because they have the fastest drying ink, said Megan Gilbertson, the Maricopa County Elections Department's communications director.
“The Sharpies are just fine to use," Gilbertson said in an interview. "They do not impact tabulation, and we encourage them on Election Day because of how fast the ink dries."
By Tuesday night, some Arizona Trump voters had begun to question whether ballots had been counted.
Andrea Thiele, 48, of Surprise, Arizona, said in an interview that when she took her daughter to vote she noticed Sharpies and found them “fishy.”
The voting machine accepted her daughter’s ballot, she said.
Later, however, she discovered a viral Facebook video saying that Trump voters had their ballots rejected after Maricopa County poll workers had given voters Sharpies.
Now, she is concerned the ballot wasn’t counted.
“I suspect there’s fraud happening, absolutely,” she said.
The state attorney general’s office said in a statement to Reuters on Wednesday it had received hundreds of complaints about Sharpie use and sent a letter to Maricopa County officials to investigate the concerns.
"There is no concern about ballots being counted because of the pen being used to count ballots," Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said on CNN Wednesday.
By Wednesday afternoon, the video Thiele saw had been shared on Facebook 101,000 times, and had been promoted by prominent conservatives, including Sidney Powell, the attorney representing former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Following those 101,000 shares, it was labeled "false information" on Facebook by fact-checkers who have partnered with the social media company to root out disinformation about the 2020 election.
Facebook has also blocked the hashtag "#sharpiegate," Facebook spokeswoman Andrea Vallone said, while a Twitter spokeswoman said the social media company was labeling tweets that "misleadingly claim ballots were invalidated."
American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp has also repeated the fraud claims on Twitter and urged voters to report them to the Arizona attorney general’s office.
Schlapp and Powell could not immediately be reached for comment.
Alex Stamos, Facebook's former chief technology officer and now director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, told reporters Wednesday the allegations were “disinformation.”
“Once this idea was out there in the zeitgeist, it was picked up,” he said.
(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Phoenix and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; additional reporting by Paresh Dave in Oakland, Calif. and Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)