An audit of ballots and a forensic audit of voting equipment earlier this year found no problems in the 2020 elections in Maricopa County, Arizona. But debunked claims about voter fraud revealed by secret “watermarks” are flowing again on social media amid a Republican-led audit. County officials say no watermarks were used on the ballots.
According to the Maricopa County Elections Department, nearly 2.1 million voters participated in the 2020 general elections in Maricopa County, the largest county in Arizona. President Joe Biden won the county by a margin of more than 45,000 votes over former President Donald Trump. Biden carried the state of Arizona by a closer margin of 10,457 votes.
The county takes steps before and after every election to ensure security and accuracy, including a hand-count audit of a “statistically significant sample of ballots” to be compared to the machine count. In 2020 that audit found 100% accuracy, according to county election officials.
Following claims of voter fraud from Republicans, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors also hired two independent voting system testing laboratories to conduct a forensic audit of the county’s election equipment. The two firms, Pro V&V and SLI Compliance, reported in February that the election equipment and software passed all tests conducted during the forensic audit.
Yet baseless claims of voter fraud continued, and the Republican-led Arizona Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a private, Florida-based cybersecurity company, to conduct another audit of the Maricopa County ballots.
Despite objections of the Arizona Democratic Party, the state Senate is paying Cyber Ninjas — a company with no reported prior election audit experience — $150,000 to conduct the audit. Christina Bobb, a host on the conservative network One America News, helped raise another $150,000 to help cover the costs. Cyber Ninjas Chief Executive Officer Doug Logan “is a proud supporter of the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement and has retweeted numerous posts on Twitter claiming that the 2020 General Election was rigged against Donald Trump,” according to a suit filed by the state Democratic Party to stop the partisan audit.
A state court in February ruled that the county must turn over all election equipment and materials for the audit. Maricopa County turned over nearly 2.1 million ballots, 385 Election Day tabulators, nine central count tabulators, and more than eight terabytes of data — including tabulator logs, voter records, clones of servers and images of early ballot affidavits and ballot images — to the Arizona Senate, which then gave the materials to Cyber Ninjas.
The audit by Cyber Ninjas -– which began April 23 and is expected to take several weeks — has included the use of ultraviolet lights to see if watermarks were embedded in the ballots. Conspiracy theories surrounding watermarks on election ballots have been gaining traction since the 2020 presidential election, with QAnon followers falsely claiming official ballots were secretly watermarked by the Trump administration to ferret out the use of fraudulent ballots.
In November, we debunked false claims on social media that the Department of Homeland Security used watermarks on “official ballots” throughout the U.S.
Social media users have revived the bogus claim, however. A Facebook post on April 25 falsely claims, “So it’s official, there was in fact watermarks on the ballots in Arizona.”
A similar Instagram post shows a screenshot of a tweet posted by @Dino_Veletanlic reading: “Donald Trump told us the 2020 election would be stolen via fake printed ballots. The media and left labeled us as conspiracy theorists. The Maricopa County audit is confirming the rumors, that a special watermark is on the real ballots.”
But those claims are false.
“Maricopa County election officials have stated that there are no watermarks on their ballots,” Sophia Solis, spokeswoman for the Arizona Secretary of State, told us in an email. “Misinformation and disinformation continue to be a serious threat to our democracy.”
On April 26, the Maricopa County Elections Department tweeted, “A question we’ve been getting a lot today is about @MaricopaCounty ballots. Did you know there are NO watermarks on @MaricopaCounty ballots? Get more facts like this in our @MaricopaVote “Just the Facts” updates: http://bit.ly/JustTheFacts4-26-21.”
The “Just the Facts” web page states, “There are many security measures in place when creating and printing ballots, but there are no secret markings on the ballot.”
The use of ultraviolet lights during the current audit raised concerns for election experts at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. It wrote a letter on April 29 to Chris Herren, chief of the voting section in the civil rights division at the Department of Justice, requesting that he deploy federal monitors to the location of the Arizona audit.
A public statement from the Brennan Center said that Cyber Ninjas’ audit process risks “compromising the integrity of the ballots themselves, using materials and technologies that will cause the ballot paper and marks to deteriorate, such as holding ballots to ultra-violet light without gloves.”
Ken Bennett, the state Senate Republicans’ liaison for the audit, told PolitiFact on May 3 that the auditors did initially scan ballots with UV lights to see if there were watermarks, but they are no longer using the lights. Bennett also stated there was “no evidence” of watermark findings and “findings would not be released in the middle of the audit anyway, that is pure speculation or made up whatever.”
Biden’s victory in Arizona was certified by state officials — including Republican Gov. Doug Ducey — in November and Congress accepted those results on Jan. 6.
Solis, the spokeswoman for the secretary of state, also said, “The election results have been certified and nothing that Cyber Ninjas does will alter the outcome.”
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.
Arizona 2020 Election Results. Accessed 7 May 2021.
Arizona 2020 General Maricopa Hand Count Audit Report. Accessed 11 May 2021.
Arizona Counties by Population. Accessed 6 May 2021.
Arizona Secretary of State. 2020 General State Canvass. Accessed 11 May 2021.
Arizona Superior Court Maricopa County. “Arizona Democratic Party And Steve Gallardo V Karen Frann, Et Al.” 22 Apr 2021.
Arizona Superior Court Maricopa County. “Maricopa County, Et Al. V. Karen Fann, Et Al.” 25 Feb 2021.
Arizona Vote Audit Live Stream. Accessed 6 May 2021.
“Auditing Elections Equipment In Maricopa County.” Accessed 6 May 2021.
Bobb, Christina. (@Christina_Bobb). “Voices & Votes is excited for our second pledge to the AZ audit! We’re raising funds to help cover costs of the paper ballot analysis of the Arizona Election Audit. We’ve already met our first goal of $150,000. Let’s get this audit funded!https://voicesandvotes.org/donate/” Twitter. 15 Apr 2021.
Carroll, Logan. “Minnesota right reacts to Trump’s narrowing path: From wild conspiracy theories, to fear and sadness.” Minnesota Reformer. 6 Nov 2020.
“Cyber Ninja” webpage. Crunchbase.com. Accessed 11 May 2021.
Cyber Ninjas website. Accessed 11 May 2021.
“Cyber Ninjas releases documents describing Maricopa County audit procedures after court ruling.” ABC 15. 29 Apr 2021.
Duda, Jeremy and Jim Small. “Arizona Senate hires a ‘Stop the Steal’ advocate to lead 2020 election audit.” AZ Mirror. 1 Apr 2021.
Fifield, Jen. “Arizona election auditors are running ballots under UV light. What could they be looking for?” Arizona Republic. 29 Apr 2021.
Fifield, Jen. “Arizona Senate audit gets off to shaky start, with rules finalized on the fly.” Arizona Republic. 23 Apr 2021.
Fifield, Jen. “Judge rules Maricopa County must provide 2020 ballots to Arizona Senate for audit under subpoenas.” Arizona Republic. 26 Feb 2021.
Fifield, Jen. “Updated: Answers to your questions about the Arizona Senate’s audit of 2020 election results in Maricopa County.” Arizona Republic. 26 Apr 2021.
Just the Facts – Maricopa County Election Updates. Accessed 6 May 2021.
Kertscher, Tom and Amy Sherman. “No Proof for pro-Trump conspiracy theory of secret watermarks on Ariz. ballots.” PolitiFact. 3 May 2021.
Little, Olivia. “A QAnon election conspiracy theory about ballot fraud is going viral on TikTok.” Media Matters. 5 Nov 2020.
Maricopa County Elections Department (@MaricopaVote). “A question we’ve been getting a lot today is about @MaricopaCounty ballots. Did you know there are NO watermarks on @MaricopaCounty ballots? Get more facts like this in our @MaricopaVote “Just the Facts” updates: http://bit.ly/JustTheFacts4-26-21.” Twitter. 26 Apr 2021.
Maricopa County Government. “2020 Election Security & Accuracy.” 26 Jan 2021.
Maricopa County Government. “Auditing Elections Equipment in Maricopa County.” 23 Feb 2021.
Oxford, Andrew. “Democrats settle lawsuit with Arizona Senate, Cyber Ninjas on Maricopa County election audit.” Arizona Republic. 5 May 2021.
Oxford, Andrew. “Cyber Ninjas, hired by Arizona Senate to recount Maricopa County’s ballots, asks court to keep its procedures secret.” USA Today. 26 Apr 2021.
Putterman, Samantha. “Did President Trump issue secret watermarks on ballots? No, that’s another QAnon conspiracy theory.” PolitiFact. 6 Nov 2020.
Rosenblatt, Dillion. “Fann passes on experienced auditor, picks cheapest.” Arizona Capitol Times. 23 Apr 2021.
Sophia Solis. Spokeswoman, Arizona Secretary of State. Email sent to FactCheck.org. 6 May 2021.
Spencer Hale, Saranac. “Bogus QAnon Claim that Mail-In Ballots Are Illegitimate.” Factcheck.org. 5 Nov 2020.
Timm, Jane C. “Antifa fears, UV lights: What the group running Arizona GOP’s election audit tried to keep secret.” NBCNews. 30 Apr 2021.
Valdes, Nicole. “Firm recounting Arizona ballots wants methods kept secret.” KNXV. 26 Apr 2021.
Valdes, Nicole. “Superior Court judge recuses himself in case challenging Senate elections audit.” KNXV. 26 Apr 2021.
WAKE Technology Services, Inc. “Counting Floor Policies.” Accessed 7 May 2020.
Weiser, Wendy R., et al. “Election Experts Send Letter to the Department of Justice on Arizona Audits.” Brennan Center for Justice. 29 Apr 2021.