Bogus ‘Sharpiegate’ Claim Resurfaces in Pennsylvania Election


Quick Take

Dominion voting machines have had no issues reading ballots filled out with Sharpie pens. But an Instagram video spread the false claim that ballots filled out with Sharpies could not be counted by voting machines in Pennsylvania’s 2022 election. A Pennsylvania Department of State spokesperson said the claim is “disinformation.”

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Pennsylvania is a key state in the midterm elections in determining which party will control the U.S. Senate. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, beat Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Republican, for the seat held by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who didn’t seek reelection. In the gubernatorial race, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, defeated Republican State Sen. Doug Mastriano.

In filling out their ballots, Pennsylvania voters using certain machines from Dominion Voting Systems, a global supplier of election technology, could have used blue ink pens, pencils or Sharpie pens.

But an Instagram video shared on Nov. 7 and narrated by Ann Vandersteel, a conservative commentator and QAnon conspiracy theorist, spread the false claim that ballots filled out with Sharpie pens could not be counted by Dominion voting machines in Pennsylvania.

Similar bogus claims were also made in Pennsylvania and Arizona during the 2020 election.

“I’ve got some very important news I need to share with you out of Pennsylvania. It looks like Dominion is still up to the same old tricks. They’ve got problems with the machines and here’s what I’ve just learned,” Vandersteel said in the video. “The Dominion Sharpiegate continues… Dominion, as you know, wanted you to use the Sharpies and the reason they wanted you to use Sharpies when filling out the ballots is because those Sharpies bleed over. The problem is the precinct tabulators have their dpi [dots-per-inch] settings — how much they actually read the actual image — set very low to 300 dpi, and when they are sent off to the next station to be read, that scanner is set to 1200 dpi. Well, the precinct dpi setting creates a lot of adjudicated ballots, meaning they can’t read them properly, so they are set aside to be adjudicated by hand count.”

We reached out to Vandersteel to see what proof she had for the claim made in the video, but we didn’t hear back.

Vandersteel’s claim that ballots marked with Sharpies can’t be read by tabulators in Pennsylvania is false.

Dominion Machines Work with Sharpie Pens

Ahead of the 2020 primaries, all Pennsylvania counties updated their voting systems to “produce voter-verifiable paper records and meet 21st-century standards of security, auditability and accessibility​​,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The systems needed to be updated because the old voting software and hardware became unsupported by its manufacturers after 2018.

Dominion Voting Systems serves 14 of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania. The rest use voting machines provided by other companies — including Election Systems & Software, which supplies machines to most counties in Pennsylvania. 

Some voters in counties that use Dominion systems mark their ballots using the Dominion ImageCast X, a ballot marking device that prints out the completed ballot after the voter fills it out on a computer screen. Others use a writing instrument, such as a Sharpie pen or a pencil, to fill out paper ballots. All voters in counties that use Dominion systems then cast their ballot by inserting it in the ImageCast Precinct Scanner.

In a statement updated on Nov. 8, Dominion said its machines had received “preliminary and public logic and accuracy testing” by bipartisan election inspectors. 

Amy Gulli, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of State, told us in an email on Nov. 8 that the claims in Vandersteel’s video are “disinformation.”

“When a voting system is certified at the federal and state levels, marking devices (pens and/or pencils) are identified and tested to ensure that the system can read them and that they do not cause bleed-through or other marking issues,” Gulli said. “Counties use that information to identify the best marking device for their voters.”

“We have not had any reports of this issue occurring in today’s general election,” Gulli said. “We are aware of these allegations made in previous elections, and those previous accusations were determined to be unfounded in Pennsylvania.”

In a tutorial on YouTube, Dominion shows a person filling out a ballot using a Sharpie pen and then casting the ballot in the ImageCast Precinct Scanner. The ballot is successfully cast after the “ballots cast” count increases by one and a confirmation appears on the scanner.

Kay Stimson, a spokesperson for Dominion, said in a previous email with, “Election officials are well-accustomed to dealing with ballots marked with different types of writing utensils.”

“Fine-tipped Sharpies have been found to provide the fastest-drying ink, which helps to prevent any smearing or stray marks on ballots being marked at the polls,” Stimson said.

Editor’s note: is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.


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Pennsylvania U.S. Senate Election Results.” New York Times. Updated 9 Nov 2022.

Gulli, Amy. Communications director, Pennsylvania Department of State. Email to 8 Nov 2022. 

Live Election Results: Top Races to Watch.” New York Times. Updated 9 Nov 2022.

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Sovereign Citizen Ideology Increasingly Seeping into QAnon.“ Anti-Defamation League. 19 Jan 2022. 

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