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From Sharpies to 'dumped ballots': The misinformation being shared about voting in the US

Here are some claims of electoral fraud being spread on social media, and the facts behind those claims.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

MISINFORMATION HASN’T JUST been a feature of the US presidential election campaigns, but is also haunting the already grueling counting in a handful of states yet to declare for a US presidential candidate.  

Here are some of the main claims that are doing the rounds and have been cleared up by US officials, so that you can separate fact from widely-shared social media claims.

Claim 1

Donald Trump sent this tweet claiming that there have been “a large number of secretly dumped ballots” in Michigan, a tweet which has since been flagged by Twitter:

We have claimed, for Electoral vote purposes, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania (which won’t allow legal observers) the state of Georgia, and the state of North Carolina, each one of which has a BIG Trump lead. 
Additionally, we hereby claim the state of Michigan if, in fact there was a large number of secretly dumped ballots as has been widely reported!

DJ Trump Source: Donald Trump

The origins of this claim seem to come from a screenshot taken of an interactive election map. The screenshot was taken by republican consultant Matt Mackowiak.

He said that it appeared over 128,000 new votes were counted and all went to Biden, which would be suspicious. Trump shared the tweet and said, “what is this all about?”

The site where the map was from, Decision Desk HQ, said that this was a typo based on a “clerical error” made while updating their Electoral map, and was fixed once they realised the error – around 30 minutes later.

An elections clerk told The New York Times that “all it was is there was an extra zero that got typed in”. Instead of saying that Biden’s unofficial tally was 15,371, they put in 153,710.

Decision Desk HQ said: “This morning there was a clerical error in the Shiawassee, MI county presidential data. Once we identified the error, we cleared the erroneous data and updated it with the correct data as provided by officials.”

Mackowiak later deleted his tweet, saying that it was meant in good faith. 

The claim seems to have spurred on other accusations of electoral fraud in Michigan, however, that are still reverberating: other claims are now being made on Twitter, mostly by Trump supporters and claimed without evidence:

Over 500 mail in ballots for Trump found dumped at Marysville Precinct in Michigan. [Twitter]

Claim 2

Donald Trump is repeatedly claiming that his shrinking leads in some states is down to ballots ‘being found’ and added to the tally:

They are working hard to make up 500,000 vote advantage in Pennsylvania disappear – ASAP. Likewise, Michigan and others!
They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. So bad for our Country!

Important context to note on this issue: stronger support for Trump was expected early on, as the first votes of the US Presidential election were counted.

This is because the in-person votes were going to be counted first, and this cohort of voters tend to be Republicans. This Rep-Dem divide was only amplified further by the coronavirus pandemic, with more Democrats expected to send in mail-in or absentee ballots.

Trump’s tweets seem to show the President attempting to rationalise the ‘blue shift’ as a fraud because he can’t understand that there are party-aligned patterns associated with ballots that depend on what area they are from and how the votes were cast.

This tweet from Trump seems to support this: “How come every time they count Mail-In ballot dumps they are so devastating in their percentage and power of destruction?”

us-election-day-voting Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Claim 3

Yesterday, Donald Trump’s son Eric tweeted out “Burning 80 Trump Ballots” with a link to another tweet with a video. The tweet has been shared over 30,000 times.

The video showed a plastic bag filled with pieces of paper that appeared to be ballots, and a man saying “all Trump… you gotta do what you gotta do… fuck Trump”. He then lights the ballots on fire and flips his middle finger. 

This video has also been widely shared on Facebook. 

But the ballots are not real ballots, they’re sample ballots.

Here’s a photo of the two below to show the difference: the first is a screenshot of the papers burnt in the video that was shared, the second is what a US election ballot looks like. 

There is no ‘bar code’, or dotted black line, around the edge of the pages that were set alight in the video. This means that they are sample or fake ballots. 

Ballot Source: Virginia Beach

Officials from Virginia Beach, a city in southeast Virginia released a statement about the video, which apparently happened in their district:

“A concerned citizen shared a video with us that ostensibly shows someone burning ballots. They are NOT official ballots, they are sample ballots. See the attached freeze frame image and photo of the official ballots, which have the bar codes.”

us-election-2020-wisconsin-voting A poll worker sorts through early and absentee ballots at the Kenosha Municipal building, Wisconsin, on Election Day. Source: Wong Maye-E

Claim 4

‘Sharpiegate’ is another allegation made in states such as Arizona and Michigan.

What’s being alleged is that election officials are giving voters ‘Sharpies’, which is a brand of marker, to fill in their election ballot. But when they go to a machine to have their vote scanned, it’s claimed that it doesn’t register the vote. 

Here’s a voter in Arizona explaining her experience:

There were two people who were in front of me that used a Sharpie that was given to them by the poll workers. It did not read their ballot, and they slotted it in their twice. I used a pen, took their Sharpie and threw it away, and it read my ballot.

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When asked if they were being given Sharpies on purpose so it would not read their ballot, she answered “Yes”.

In the US, voters use ‘tabulation’ machines in some areas of some states to arrange ballots for either or candidate.

Arizona election officials told the Associated Press that Sharpies were used in voting, but they said that would not invalidate a ballot. 

Maricopa County Elections Department (in Arizona) tweeted on 3 November:

Did you know we use Sharpies in the Vote Centers so the ink doesn’t smudge as ballots are counted onsite? New offset columns on the ballots means bleed through won’t impact your vote!

Clint Hickman, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and Steve Gallardo, the board’s only Democrat, published a letter to voters expressing concern about misinformation.

They said officials tested a wide variety of pens with their vote-tabulation equipment and “Sharpies are recommended by the manufacturer because they provide the fastest-drying ink.” They also said that Sharpies do not invalidate ballots.

Arizona Source: Maricopa County

Vox reports that machines not working as they should (reading ballots as they should, for example) is expected in any election and that when they do break down there are accusations of interference or fraud from all sides. 

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