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Driven by unfounded ‘SharpieGate’ rumor, pro-Trump protesters mass outside Arizona vote-counting center

Demonstrators took to the streets Nov. 4 in support of both presidential candidates, demanding all votes be counted as the election remains too close to call. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Hannah Knowles/The Washington Post)

More than 100 protesters wearing MAGA hats and draped in Trump 2020 banners congregated outside a Maricopa County, Ariz., ballot-processing center where poll workers were counting votes Wednesday night.

They chanted in unison, “Count the votes!” and “Let us in!” as police kept the group away from a building where officials labored for the second straight night to process ballots in Arizona’s most populous county, which could sway a tight race between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden.

Many of the protesters were galvanized by an unfounded claim that swaths of pro-Trump ballots had been disqualified because voters used Sharpies to mark their choices, a rumor some dubbed “SharpieGate.” (The claim shouldn’t be confused with a previously declared “Sharpiegate” over Trump’s use of a hurricane map altered by a marker.) Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) tweeted about the rumor Wednesday morning and later showed up to speak at the protest.

In fact, ballots marked with Sharpies are counted, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors said in a statement. The local elections department supplied some voters with Sharpies because the ink dries quickly.

Election officials in Arizona rebut claims that ballots marked with Sharpies were disqualified

Despite fears that the protest might delay counting, the board continued reporting returns early on Thursday morning. With about 86 percent of ballots counted, Biden led Trump by more than 68,000 votes. Although Fox News and the Associated Press called the race in the Democrat’s favor, the president’s campaign has not given up hope that about 300,000 remaining ballots might shift the tides. The Washington Post has not yet projected a winner in Arizona.

Allies of President Trump criticized Fox News for calling Arizona’s 11 electoral votes for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Nov. 3. (Video: The Washington Post)

Unlike the mail-in ballots still being counted in Pennsylvania, which are heavily weighted in Biden’s favor and where updated vote counts have consistently chipped away at early Trump leads, Arizona’s ballots have been slowly shrinking the Democrat’s advantage. But many projections still forecast the state will be blue in the end, which set Trump and his supporters on edge Wednesday.

As Michigan is called for Biden, tensions and challenges surround the vote-counting process

Crowds targeted election centers in other cities on Wednesday as well, including in Detroit, where Republican election challengers shouted “Stop the count!” and demanded access to the room where votes were being counted, though Democratic and nonpartisan election challengers were also barred from the room. Two dueling crowds also faced off at the Clark County Elections Department in Nevada, where Biden’s advantage appears to be even smaller than in Arizona.

The protests, for some observers, recalled the “Brooks Brothers riot” in Miami during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida. In that case, scores of angry, well-dressed Republican operatives stormed an election building in Miami, where a manual recount of a contested batch of ballots was taking place, managing to halt the new vote tally.

‘It’s insanity!’: How the ‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ killed the 2000 recount in Miami

But the election officials on duty Wednesday in Arizona did not pause the poll workers’ vote counts, even as protesters angrily shouted at them through walls.

Police escorted Maricopa County election workers to their cars late Wednesday night as protesters chanted and rallied for hours outside. Several members of the crowd openly carried firearms.

Many at the rally voiced skepticism over the election results, which have increasingly narrowed Trump’s viable paths to victory as more votes have been counted.

“They’re not going to steal this election from us, are they?” Gosar asked the crowd, repeating the unfounded claim that Democrats are stealing the election. The president made a similar claim in a 2:30 a.m. speech following Election Day, and his allies fomented conspiracy theories about the vote count all day Wednesday.

“No!” the crowd shouted in response.

Despite reassurances from election officials, misinformation has taken root in some pro-Trump circles. Many people who showed up at the Maricopa County ballot-processing center said they worried that votes for Trump were not being counted.

Among the earliest arrivals to the protest were Brad Heward, 67, of Gilbert, Ariz., and his son, 23-year-old Alexander Heward.

The Hewards voted in person on Election Day, because Trump encouraged his supporters to do so, Brad Heward said. He said he believes officials gave Election Day voters Sharpies to more easily identify their ballots by the ink “bleed through.”

“Those are the ones that got thrown away,” he claimed.

But election officials said Wednesday that ink bleeds would not disqualify ballots and reiterated ballots marked with Sharpies would be counted.

A controversial Patriot Movement-affiliated group known as AZ Patriots, led by the group’s founder Jennifer Harrison, also rallied in front of the election building and live-streamed the protest on its Facebook page.

Speaking briefly to The Post, Harrison falsely claimed there are no Republicans in the elections center processing ballots. Pairs of people from opposite political parties worked jointly to examine ballots Wednesday night.

Poll workers were still trickling out of the building at 11 p.m., by which time the crowd had gotten smaller.

“Staff at the Maricopa County Elections Department will continue our job, which is to administer elections in the second largest voting jurisdiction in the county,” Maricopa County Department of Elections spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson told The Post in an email. “We thank the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for doing their job, so we can do ours.”

Gilbertson confirmed that all election workers left the building as scheduled after the end of their shifts at 10:30 p.m., not because of the crowd outside. They will be back to count more votes at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, she said.