Maricopa County Abandons Sharpies to Improve Tabulation Machines’ Ballot Processing

Maricopa County Abandons Sharpies to Improve Tabulation Machines’ Ballot Processing

By Corinne Murdock |

The Maricopa County Elections Department will swap Sharpies for Pentel felt-tipped pens to ensure that the ink dries fast enough for tabulation machines to process in-person votes.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer told AZ Family this week that Sharpies don’t dry as quickly as Pentel pens. 

“If you’re voting on Election Day, we need that pen to dry quickly because you’re going to feed it directly into the tabulation machine that is there at the voting location,” Richer said.

The county’s switch comes months ahead of the two-year anniversary of “SharpieGate,” a viral belief that grew out of local voter complaints in the 2020 election that Sharpies used at voting locations to fill out ballots caused tabulation machines to struggle processing their ballots. 

In May, Richer shared with KTAR News that SharpieGate-related concerns among voters were another reason they ceased using Sharpies.

“It’s small but emblematic of what we’re trying to do here,” said Richer.

Yet in June, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Clint Hickman said in a since-deleted interview with AZ Family that Sharpies were the manufacturer-recommended tool because of their quick drying time. 

“Sharpies are recommended by the manufacturer because they provide the fastest-drying ink. The offset columns on ballots ensure that any bleed-through will not impact your vote,” said Hickman. 

In the weeks following 2020 voters’ concerns that Sharpie ink invalidated ballots, Maricopa County asserted that Sharpies didn’t compromise ballot integrity and were “the best option” for their tabulation equipment. They also claimed that Sharpies were the “fastest drying ink” that “doesn’t smudge.” 

The county added that the tabulation machine manufacturers recommended the use of Sharpies over other writing instruments. 

Richer pleaded with voters to use the felt-tipped pens, saying that other pens — like ballpoint — might cause residue buildup in the tabulating machines. 

The changes prompted some within GOP leadership to openly balk county protocols. Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward instructed her voters to use their own pens when voting.

State Representative and secretary of state candidate Shawnna Bolick (R-Phoenix) announced that she would be using her own pen to vote in person. 

Bolick later shared that poll workers were giving her reports of the pens bleeding through the ballots. The county has assured voters repeatedly over the past two years that bleed-through doesn’t affect the machines’ ability to read ballots. 

In response, Richer said that naysayers of the new pens were attempting to disrupt the primary. He advised voters to comply with their election workers by using whatever pen they’re given. 

“It’s a primary. What the heck do you think we get out of giving people a special pen other than a smooth functioning election?” asked Richer. “Do you think we’re just asking you to use the Pentel pen to be funny? Good lord people.”

Primary Election Day is next Tuesday, August 2. Maricopa County drop box and voting locations are available online, and ballot tracking is available here.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Maricopa County Elections Spent $10K On ‘Phil The Ballot’ Mascot

Maricopa County Elections Spent $10K On ‘Phil The Ballot’ Mascot

By Corinne Murdock |

The Maricopa County Elections Department spent $10,000 on two of the same custom ballot mascots last February, according to records. That price is within the normal range of costs associated with custom mascots – they typically cost several thousands of dollars. In a statement to AZ Free News, Maricopa County Elections Department spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson explained that the mascot was necessary to mitigate updates to the elections equipment and the fresh outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a new ballot style, new equipment and a global pandemic, Maricopa County wanted a way to ensure voters had the information they needed to successfully and safely participate in elections in 2020. Voter education can help keep polling place lines shorter by providing voters with critical details about election deadlines and important election information. The Elections Department and Recorder’s Office created BeBallotReady. Vote, a customized dashboard where voters can find election information and deadlines, sample ballots, voting locations, information about the new ballot and equipment, and more. Along with the dashboard, the County launched a coordinated campaign to inform voters about the new ballot and equipment as well as direct information about the 2020 elections. The spokesperson of the campaign was Phil the Ballot. The mascot costume was used in all of our videos and graphics during the election and has become a beloved and well liked figure of Maricopa County elections.

The department’s invoice was dated February 27, 2020. At that point, only one case of COVID-19 was discovered in Maricopa County at the end of January: an Arizona State University (ASU) student who’d traveled to Wuhan, China. Additional cases weren’t reported on widely until March, and the first known community spread case wouldn’t occur for over another week.

The county also told AZ Free News that they weren’t going to use the mascot, named “Phil the Ballot,” at any of their polling locations because photography isn’t allowed within 75 feet of any polling location.

According to the invoice, each mascot cost $4,450. The carrying bag set to hold both Phil the Ballot mascots cost $300, and the cooling system and fan for the costume cost $530 altogether. Shipping totaled nearly $464.

However, the elections department did get a discount of $200 for purchasing two of the same costume. The mascots came from Ohio-based Promo Costumes.

Phil the Ballot appears in instructional or informational videos posted by the department on YouTube. These videos cover various topics, such as how to request a one-time ballot or how to locate a voting center. One of Phil the Ballot’s videos published several weeks before the 2020 presidential election even discussed how Sharpies could be used to mark ballots.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.