This story was updated on Oct. 19 with additional comments from the Secretary of State's office.
Hanover, like a lot of other communities, started sending out its general election absentee ballots at the end of September. And then came the calls from panicked voters, who noticed the pens they used bled through their two-sided ballots.
" 'Sharpie-gate' is what we called it here,” Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain explained, “because people were calling, assuming that their ballots were going to be disqualified."
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Hanover’s so-called “Sharpie-gate” underscored a question on the minds of lots of people who are, for the first time, filling out their ballots at home rather than at the polling place: Does it matter what kind of writing utensil you use to cast your vote?
In the last few weeks, state election officials have offered mixed messages on that subject.
Initially, the Secretary of State’s office said there was no cause for concern. Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan addressed the Sharpie issue during a series of recent information sessions with election officials, saying his office was getting peppered with questions about the same problem.
“As long as the bleed-through does not fill an oval on the other side of the ballot, it's not going to be an issue,” Scanlan told local voter checklist supervisors on Oct. 7. “The machine is not going to read the bleed-through. It will only read the marks that are placed in the ovals. So we don’t see any real issues there, other than cosmetics.”
During the same series of information sessions, Scanlan said the Secretary of State’s office doesn't make any special recommendations for what kind of pen, pencil or marker is best when it comes to completing ballots.
“Really, any type of a writing utensil can be used on an AccuVote ballot,” Scanlan said when briefing local clerks on Oct. 6. “It can be a pen. It could be a pencil. And for that reason, there are no specific instructions on the ballot as far as what type of writing utensil to use.”
However, the “absentee ballot” page on the Secretary of State’s website has since been updated with more specific instructions and an explicit warning against using Sharpies or other markers.
“Do not use a sharpie or marker to mark your ballot,” the state elections website reads. “Please use a pen or a number 2 pencil.”
Despite the new website language explicitly advising voters against using Sharpies, Scanlan said that voters who already filled out their ballots with Sharpies shouldn't need to worry that their vote has been spoiled.
"A sharpie will not affect the ability of the optical scan counting device to read the ballot provided any 'bleed' through does not fill an oval for a choice on the back side of the ballot," Scanlan wrote in an email responding to questions from NHPR about the new instructions on the Secretary of State's website. "The ballots have been designed so the ovals front to back do not line up. As a result 'bleed' through, although unsightly, should not impact the counting of votes."
In New Hampshire, absentee ballots and those cast at the polling place are counted in the same manner, but the method of counting varies by community. Most of the state’s votes are tallied using AccuVote ballot-counting devices that are no longer on the market; the rest are counted by hand.
When divvying up equipment for polling places this fall, the Secretary of State’s office supplied AccuVote communities with single-use pens; hand-count towns were given pencils, one for each voter.
Even prior to the Secretary of State’s updated guidance, local election officials have been drawing on their own on-the-ground experience to respond to voter questions about writing utensils.
In Hanover, McClain said she tells absentee voters they should try to use the same kind of utensil they would for other everyday correspondence, like letters or grocery lists.
“A voting machine can read other colors, ink and pencil,” she said. “But the scanner recognizes black ink best and is the standard, although it's not required.”
Elsewhere, Atkinson Town Clerk Julianna Hale reached out to the company that manufactures New Hampshire’s ballot counting devices, LHS Associates, for advice on what to tell voters in her community because, she said, “I had a lot of people inquiring.”
Based on LHS Associates’ recommendations, Hale has been encouraging Atkinson absentee voters to use black or blue ink — but to avoid red or green ink. NHPR also reached out via phone and email to LHS Associates seeking more information on what writing utensils work best in its machines but has not yet heard back.
Merrimack Town Clerk Diane Trippett said, in her experience, even if the AccuVote machine can’t read the ink on someone’s ballot it will sort that ballot into a special bin, and all of the ballots in that bin will be examined by a pollworker to ensure no vote is overlooked.
“Every ballot is absolutely counted,” Trippett said, “regardless of whether a machine does it or a person does it.”
New Hampshire's Election Procedure Manual notes that some communities have opted to remove the “diverter” that sorts unread ballots within their ballot counting devices. But if that’s the case, the manual states, every ballot “must be visually checked for: write-in votes [and] ballots where the ovals are all blank but the voter has marked his or her choices in another manner, such as circling the chosen candidate’s name, underlining, or striking through all the candidates not chosen.”
If a voter is concerned that their ballot has been truly spoiled — by a Sharpie or otherwise — they can call their local clerk to request a new one. Click here to look up the contact information for the clerk’s office in your community.
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