Pens or pencils? For Brexit supporters headed to the polls today, the answer was obvious: pens. As voters began casting ballots on whether Britain should leave the European Union, backers of a British exit were urging people to use their own pens at polling places to avoid what they called a government plot to rig votes in favor of the "remain" camp.
Many of those who believed this theory were supporters of the far-right U.K. Independence Party, better known as UKIP. They were convinced that the spy agency MI5 would try to change people's votes by erasing the penciled marks on their ballots. Some took to social media to warn voters, using the #usepens hashtag to get their message across. One Twitter user wrote, "Make sure you take a black pen with you to vote as pencil votes can be tampered with."
— Jacqueline Jackson (@willowhalegreen) June 23, 2016
Others took it upon themselves to write messages on signs outside polling sites. This Twitter user took a picture of one that had "use a pen to vote" scribbled on it.
Seems referendum voters in Clapton don't trust the pencils attached to voting booths pic.twitter.com/nKEbbqPeyn
— Kalyeena Makortoff (@kalyeena) June 23, 2016
After the conspiracy theory took off, the Electoral Commission made a point to reassure voters that they were allowed to use pens, according to local media. "By tradition, pencils are available in polling booths for voters to mark their ballot papers," a spokesperson told the Daily Mail.
Others went as far as to interview the manager of the company that supplied the pencils to the polling booths. According to Jonathan Eley of the Financial Times, the manager of the company said that "there is nothing special about the pencils it supplies." Other people mocked the conspiracy theorists on social media.
I voted in pencil just in case MI5 need to change it later
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) June 23, 2016
The conspiracy behind pens vs. pencils dates to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the Financial Times reports, in which people in Scotland voted on whether to remain in the United Kingdom.