Is the audit in Maricopa County, Arizona, confirming the rumor that a "special watermark is on the real ballots"? No, there's no evidence that's true: Maricopa County ballots do not have watermarks, according to a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Elections Department. Claims of such watermarks are related to a previously debunked conspiracy theory that some entity -- perhaps the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), maybe the U.S. Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) -- printed SECRETLY watermarked ballots in a bid to root out fake ballots and fraud. CISA has said that neither DHS nor CISA design nor print ballots; those processes are managed by state and local officials.
The claim appeared in an Instagram post (archived here) published by "republicanparty" on April 24, 2021. The post consists of an introductory message and a screenshot of a tweet from "Dino Veletanlic." The message read: "Trump knew they would cheat, did you think they wouldn't be able to prove it? Let's see what happens." The tweet includes a short video from the Arizona audit and stated:
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. No wonder the Democrats tried to stall.
Users on social media saw this at the time of writing:
The tweet, and by extension the post, are referring to the latest audit of ballots from the 2020 general election in Maricopa County, the state's most populous county. It is taking place at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, in Phoenix, where subpoenaed election materials were delivered April 21 and April 22, 2021. The audit, which was commissioned by Republicans in the state Senate, is being streamed here.
The video in the tweet appears to have been taken from that livestream. It shows someone, presumably an audit worker, scanning what may be a ballot under what looks to be an ultraviolet light. The implication, gathered from the text of the tweet, is that workers are looking for -- and finding -- a "special watermark," which will permit them to separate real ballots from purported fake ones. The larger claim is that the 2020 election was "stolen" via "fake printed ballots."
There's no evidence that's true.
For starters, we don't know exactly what we're seeing in the video. It's a 12-second clip with no context. We don't know who the people are in the video; we don't know what they're doing.
Lead Stories reached out to Cyber Ninjas, the private company tapped to lead the audit effort, to ask about the video and the post's claims. We will update this story if we receive a response. At the time of writing, April 26, 2021, the company had made no public comments regarding the results of the audit. More than 2 million voters in Maricopa County participated in the 2020 general election. It is unclear exactly how long it will take to recount all the ballots.
We also reached out to the Maricopa County Elections Department to ask about the post's claims. Spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson responded in an email, dated April 26, 2021:
What I can tell you is that Maricopa County's ballots do not have watermarks.
The post's claims recycle a previously debunked conspiracy theory that some entity printed watermarked ballots in a bid to root out fraud. See our story here, which found there was no such sting.
The false claims were so popular in the days and weeks after the 2020 election that CISA addressed them on its "Rumor Control" page. Its site says:
Reality: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) do not design or audit ballots, which are processes managed by state and local election officials.
Rumor: DHS or CISA printed paper ballots with security measures and is auditing results as a countermeasure against ballot counterfeiting.
In other words, the design and printing of ballots are processes managed by state and local election officials, and while it is true that some jurisdictions use watermarks as part of their election security measures (for example, California), the spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Elections Department told us that's not the case in her county.
The audit currently underway is not Maricopa's first audit.
A hand count audit found a 100% match between the hand count totals and the machine totals. You can read the results here. Similarly, a forensic audit of the county's election equipment found no irregularities. You can read the results of that audit here.
In a statement, dated March 31, 2021, Senate Republicans announced they had hired a new team of independent auditors to "complete a comprehensive, full forensic audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, including a hand recount of all ballots."
While supporters of the new audit argue it's a necessary step to restore faith in the election process, critics contend it will have the opposite effect. Elections experts have expressed concern about the firms selected to be involved, including Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, which is led by Doug Logan, who "not only harbors conspiratorial beliefs about the 2020 election, but has shared conspiracies about Dominion election equipment, the exact equipment he has been hired to audit," according to Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat.