Fact check: False QAnon-related conspiracy theory claims Arizona ballots are secretly watermarked

Fact check: False QAnon-related conspiracy theory claims Arizona ballots are secretly watermarked

April 29, 2021

The claim: Recount in Maricopa County has found evidence of QAnon watermarked-ballot conspiracy theory

As a controversial 2020 election recount continues in Maricopa County, Arizona, some Donald Trump loyalists are using the occasion to rekindle false conspiracy theories about watermarked ballots. 

Dino Veletanlic promoted the claim in an April 24 tweet and then shared it from his Instagram profile. In the days since, social media users have shared videos of his post.

“Donald Trump told us the 2020 election would be stolen via fake printed ballots. The media and left labeled us as conspiracy theorists,” reads the tweet. “The Maricopa County audit is confirming the rumors that a special watermark is on the real ballots. No wonder the Democrats tried to stall.”

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The tweet includes a video of several workers scanning what Veletanlic claims are election ballots under blue light.

Veletanlic told USA TODAY that he obtained the video from a livestream of the audit but refused to comment on the validity of his claim. 

USA TODAY reached out to several other posters for comment.

The Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum is set up for a recount of ballots from Maricopa County during the 2020 elections in Phoenix on April 22, 2021. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)

Watermarked ballot conspiracy theory explained

This claim references a QAnon-related, election-fraud conspiracy theory that USA TODAY debunked in November. Proponents argued Trump had secretly watermarked mail-in ballots before the election so he could have evidence of widespread Democratic fraud.

QAnon supporters believe Trump is the chosen savior battling a liberal “deep state” of ruling pedophiles. Followers look to online messages by “Q”, whom they believe to be an anonymous whistleblower, for guidance on political events. Believers had been trying to decode the phrase “watch the water” since “Q” posted it on the message board 8kun (formerly called 8chan) in February 2018. 

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However, this conspiracy theory overlooks the fact that ballots are not produced by the federal government, making the claimed extensive, secret operation nearly impossible to pull off. 

Ballot printer confirms federal watermark would be impossible

In November USA TODAY interviewed Jeff Ellington, president and chief executive officer of Runbeck Election Services, the printing company that produced the most ballots for the 2020 election.

Ellington stressed the many logistical feats that would make this conspiracy theory nearly impossible to execute.

He explained Trump could not have secretly watermarked ballots since they are designed by local and state governments and then outsourced to printers like his company.  

“For the federal government to even get involved they would have to have enough manpower to (personalize each ballot to unique localities). And then print them and intercept the ones that were done by the counties and by us,” he said. “That kind of defies logic.”

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On April 27, Ellington confirmed Runbeck printed the ballots for Maricopa County. He said “there are no watermarks on the ballots” and there was no possibility the Trump administration could have added these watermarks without him knowing. 

County official confirms ballots aren’t watermarked

The audit is being carried out by the Arizona Senate and Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based company that it hired to conduct the recount.

Local officials said they’ve seen no sign of watermarked ballots. 

In a phone call with USA TODAY Megan Gilbertson, communications officer for Maricopa County Elections Department, confirmed ballots were not watermarked. “In Maricopa County, we do not have watermarks on our ballots,” she said.

Arizona Senate liaison and former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett told USA TODAY he had not heard of any discovery of watermarked ballots.

Ballots from the Maricopa County 2020 elections arrive at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum to be recounted in Phoenix on April 22, 2021. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)

Access to audit procedures is limited

Cyber Ninjas has fought for secrecy around the recount’s procedures. Members of the press have largely been restricted from the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. Thus, journalists and the public have relied on livestream videos to observe the recount.

The Cyber Ninjas contract describes efforts to scan ballots in its proposed scope of work. 

The contract does not say how auditors will be examining ballots or what they will be examining them for. Nor does it say anything about watermarks. It does list “ballot images of every scanned ballot” as an “(a)nticipated artifac(t) for transparency and/or validation of results for the public.”

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While Cyber Ninjas did not respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment, it is possible auditors were completing these scans in the video Veletanlic shared. 

Ellington told USA TODAY he had “no idea” what the blue light could be scanning for.

Ballots from the Maricopa County 2020 elections arrive at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum to be recounted in Phoenix on April 22, 2021. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/The Republic)

Our rating: False

We rate the claim that the election audit in Maricopa County discovered secret watermarks on the ballots FALSE because it is not supported by our research. The president of the company that printed the ballots confirmed this is not true and would have been impossible to secretly pull off. A county official also confirmed the ballots do not have watermarks.

Our fact-check sources:

  • The Arizona Republic, April 26, All observer shifts full for now as Arizona election audit continues Monday
  • USA TODAY, Nov. 10, 2020, Fact check: False QAnon claim that Trump secretly watermarked mail-in ballots to prove fraud
  • Interview with Jeff Ellington, president and CEO of Runbeck Election Services, April 25
  • Interview with Megan Gilbertson, communications officer for Maricopa County Elections Department, April 26
  • Interview with Ken Bennett, Arizona Senate liaison, April 27
  • Arizona Republic, April 26, Cyber Ninjas, hired by Arizona Senate to recount Maricopa County’s ballots, asks court to keep its procedures secret
  • USA TODAY, April 24, Arizona election audit: Here’s what you’re seeing on the video feeds as counting continues Saturday
  • AZ Audit.org, accessed April 24
  • Cyber Ninjas, accessed April 26, Statement of Work

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