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Debunked Election Conspiracies Like #SharpieGate Are Still Running Rampant Online

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  • Multiple agencies, public officials, and social media platforms have debunked several election-related conspiracy theories, including one that alleges poll workers in Arizona sabotaged votes for President Donald Trump by having his supporters vote with Sharpies.
  • In fact, the Arizona elections department in question has repeatedly affirmed since October that Sharpies are a valid method for filling out ballots in the jurisdiction.
  • Officials in Virginia have also debunked a video shared by Eric Trump, the president’s son, which appears to show 80 ballots cast for President Trump being burned. 
  • Those officials say the ballots that video are not official and are instead sample ballots, as they lack “bar code markings that are on all official ballots.” 
  • Despite widespread debunking efforts, these conspiracies have continued to circulate online, and social media platforms have taken varying steps to prevent their spread.

The False Claims Behind #SharpieGate 

Since polls opened on Tuesday, numerous election-related conspiracy theories have circulated online. While many of them have since been debunked by multiple agencies, public officials, and social media platforms, that has not seemed to stop their spread.

One such debunked conspiracy theory is known as SharpieGate, which claims that poll workers intentionally sabotaged votes for incumbent President Donald Trump through the use of Sharpies.

In fact, this conspiracy has become so large that it partially inspired protests at a poll counting site in Maricopa County, Arizona, on Wednesday night. While Arizona has been called for Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden by outlets such as the Associated Press and Fox News, other outlets have refused to declare a victor, as of Thursday afternoon. 

The conspiracy goes like this: Somehow, poll workers in Maricopa County were able to tell the difference between Trump supporters and Biden supporters simply by looking at them. Instead of using regular pens, those poll workers would then hand Sharpies to the people they suspected to be Trump voters. From there, they would be able to invalidate votes for Trump.

One woman in Maricopa County has even sued election officials after saying that her ballot was invalidated because she was given a Sharpie. 

According to that lawsuit, this was the first time Laurie Aguilera had ever been given a Sharpie to vote, even though she has reportedly voted in-person over the last few election cycles. After completing her ballot, Aguilera claims she tried to feed it into the voting machine but that the machine rejected her ballot. Alongside that, she noted that ink from the Sharpie had bled through to the other side of the ballot. She then said a poll worker canceled her ballot when she requested a new one but that the poll worker also refused to give her a new ballot. 

Now, she’s accusing the Maricopa County’s voting machines of being unable to read Sharpies and is requesting that everyone who was given a Sharpie be identified and allowed to fix their vote so that it’s counted. 

SharpieGate is Overwhelmingly Debunked

According to experts and election officials, her claim is not true.

“Sharpies are just fine to use,” Megan Gilbertson, communications director for the Maricopa County Elections Department told Reuters. “They do not impact tabulation, and we encourage them on Election Day because of how fast the ink dries.”

Even before this conspiracy theory picked up steam on Tuesday, the Maricopa County Elections Department tweeted:

“Did you know we use Sharpies in the Vote Centers so the ink doesn’t smudge as ballots are counted onsite? New offset columns on the ballots means bleed through won’t impact your vote!”

Alongside that tweet, it included a video that was originally posted to YouTube on Oct. 24. That video affirms that Sharpies, as well as black or blue ink pens, are all valid methods for marking ballots in Arizona. 

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, an agency formed by legislation that Trump himself signed, directly labeled SharpieGate as a false rumor

“Poll workers are required to provide approved writing devices to voters,” it stated. 

Additionally, as the Associated Press noted, “Even if a ballot could not be read by a tabulation machine, it would be reviewed by a board that re-examines the ballots.The vote would not be canceled.”

#SharpieGate Continues

All of that has done little to end the spread of this conspiracy theory.

“Voted with a sharpie pen and now my vote is canceled. Woah,” one man said on Twitter Wednesday. 

In his post, that man also included an image seemingly showing that his ballot had been canceled.

However, this is a severely cropped photo that doesn’t tell the full story. In fact, the image linked by this man actually appears to be a form showing that his mail-in ballot was canceled because he never returned it. As the man stated, he voted in-person.

As Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs pointed out, “Voters who received an early ballot in the mail but chose to instead vote in-person will see their early ballot status as “Canceled” on their Ballot-by-Mail/Early Ballot Status update. This is because the early ballot is canceled so the ballot cast-in person can be counted.”

According to Reuters, SharpieGate is so potent that even people who used Sharpies and had their ballots clearly accepted by voting machines are now worried about their vote.

Fake Ballot Burning Video Shared by Eric Trump

While there are similar Sharpie-related stories circulating in places like Chicago, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, this is by far the only election-related conspiracy theory meant to scare conservative voters. 

In fact, on Tuesday, Eric Trump — the president’s son — shared a video that allegedly shows 80 Virginian ballots, all cast for President Trump, being burned. In that video, a person throws what appears to be ballots in a plastic bag, all before pouring lighter fluid over that bag and setting it on fire. 

“Fuck Trump,” the person says before lighting the bag. 

According to the City of Virginia Beach, those ballots are not real. Instead, officials said they are clearly sample ballots, as they lack “bar code markings that are on all official ballots.” 

What Are Social Media Platforms Doing to Stop Conspiracy Theories?

As for what social media platforms are doing to combat the spread of these conspiracy theories, Twitter has now suspended the account of the user who uploaded the ballot burning video, meaning viewers can no longer see it.

However, all of that only happened after the video racked up more than 1.2 million views, and other versions of that video are still extremely easy to find on Twitter.

Regarding SharpieGate, Twitter has slapped warning labels on posts from notable people like Matt Schlapp, a right-wing lobbyist and former Bush staffer. 

@mschlapp

It’s also created a page dedicated to debunking this conspiracy theory. 

Still, a simple glance on Schlapp’s profile will yield multiple SharpieGate tweets that haven’t been flagged. 

In addition to Schlapp, numerous tweets from other people also haven’t been flagged.

On YouTube, tons of videos promoting SharpieGate have surfaced, but YouTube has reportedly told Business Insider that it doesn’t plan on removing them. Instead, it told the outlet that it would add an “information panel below these videos.” 

That panel now reads, “Results may not be final. See the latest on Google.”

Meanwhile, Facebook has labeled at least one highly circulated SharpieGate video as “false information,” but by the time it did, that video had already been viewed 100,000 times. 

Facebook has now blocked the hashtag, #SharpieGate. 

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Business Insider) (CNN)

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NY Gov. Cuomo Aides Reportedly Altered Nursing Home Death Toll Data

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  • Aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) altered a July report from the state’s Department of Health to cover up the extent of COVID-related deaths in nursing homes, according to Thursday reports from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
  • Last month, Cuomo admitted that his administration withheld death toll data in order to prevent a possible federal misconduct investigation. 
  • However, the new reports claim Cuomo’s staffers attempted to conceal the true numbers earlier than previously known by directly altering the DOH’s report to exclude nursing home residents who died in outside facilities.  
  • The DOH then used the incomplete number to claim New York had lower nursing home deaths than other states that included out-of-facility deaths when in reality their figures were much higher than everywhere else in the country.

New York Nursing Home Scandal Escalates

Advisers to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allegedly re-wrote a report from health officials to conceal the number of COVID-related deaths in the state’s nursing homes, according to new reports published by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal Thursday.

Both Democrats and Republicans accused the Cuomo administration of intentionally withholding the full toll last month after his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, apologized to state legislators for refusing to provide data they requested in August. DeRosa explained that they had sidelined the request in order to prevent a possible misconduct investigation that stemmed from a similar inquiry by the Department of Justice.

Legislators and the DOJ had asked for the data after the state’s Health Department published a report in July detailing the impact of a controversial nursing home policy Cuomo had enacted at the beginning of the pandemic in March.

The policy, which Cuomo later rescinded in May, prohibited nursing homes from refusing to re-admit residents or admit new residents from hospitals solely on the basis that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The directive was aimed at keeping hospital admittance low and mirrored similar actions other states had taken at the time, but many nursing home operators and legislators claimed the move had encouraged the spread of the virus amongst one of the most vulnerable populations.

The Health Department’s July report, however, found the policy was not to blame. Additionally, the agency also said the 6,432 nursing home residents that had died was lower than figures in other northeastern states when measured as a percentage of the population.

Lawmakers requested to see the data behind the report, and suspicions arose when the Cuomo administration refused to provide the information, launching a nearly six-month battle.

State Attorney General Report 

Then at the end of January, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D)  published a report claiming the administration had undercounted the nursing home deaths by the thousands, and that Cuomo’s March directive may have been responsible for higher deaths.

The Health Department’s report, James said, had left out residents who had died of COVID in outside facilities such as hospitals, but still claimed New York’s tolls were lower than other states that had counted residents who died in other places.

Shortly after James’ report, the department publicized more than 3,800 unreported deaths of nursing home residents who had died of COVID-19 in hospitals.

Cuomo refused to address the controversy for weeks, only speaking out after DeRosa’s comments leaked. During a press conference on Feb. 15, he took responsibility for not fulfilling the request for data sooner, but insisted that the nursing home deaths had always been reported correctly and transparently, arguing the difference was just a matter of “categorization.”

What the New Reports Reveal

Both Cuomo and DeRosa have maintained that they withheld the data from legislators out of concern that the Trump administration would politicize the DOJ inquiry.

However, the new reports from The Times and WSJ allege that Cuomo and his aides had actually started hiding the true numbers months earlier and directly altered the Health Department’s July report.

According to a draft of the Health Department’s July report seen by the outlets and at least half a dozen people with direct knowledge, the initial version of the report contained a chart that put the nursing home death toll at 9,250 — 50% higher than the figure that was later included in the final version.

The chart also compared the full total including residents who died in hospitals to the same totals in other states, revealing that New York’s deaths far surpassed that of all others. At the time, the state with the next-highest nursing home deaths was New Jersey with 6,150.

According to The Times, the report was rewritten by three of Cuomo’s top staffers to remove the encompassing figures, including DeRosa. None of the officials had any public health expertise. The move reportedly set off a battle with health officials working on the report and further exacerbated the already tense relationship between Cuomo and his Health Department, which eventually prompted nine top officials to leave in February.  

The governor’s office responded to the reporters in a statement Thursday night from Special Counsel Beth Garvey, who said the out-of-facility data was omitted because the Health Department “could not confirm it had been adequately verified.” 

Gary Holmes, a spokesman for the Health Department, also told reporters the agency “was comfortable with the final report and believes fully in its conclusion that the primary driver that introduced Covid into the nursing homes was brought in by staff.”

The new allegations, however, come as Cuomo is already facing mounting political pressure and calls to resign over the nursing home scandal as well as recent accusations of sexual misconduct by three women, including two former employees.

After the third woman came forward, Cuomo apologized on Wednesday for the “pain” he caused, but rejected calls for his resignation. The FBI has opened an inquiry into the nursing home scandal, and the sexual harassment allegations will soon be investigated by state Attorney General James’ office.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian)

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House Passes Landmark Elections Bill To Expand Voting Rights

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  • House Democrats passed the For the People Act on Wednesday, a broad voting rights bill that aims to enhance voting rights.
  • Among other measures, the legislation would mandate automatic voter registration, expand early and mail-in voting, restore voting rights to former felons, and impose new disclosure requirements for campaign donations and political advertising.
  • Democrats say the act is necessary to ensure American’s right to vote, especially as state legislatures have proposed dozens of bills that would roll back voting access and consolidate GOP power.
  • Republicans have argued that states, not the federal government, should decide how elections are run and claimed the new bill would lead to fraud that helps liberal candidates. 

House Approves For the People Act

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping elections bill Wednesday that aims to significantly expand federal voting rights all over the country.

The bill, called the For the People Act, was proposed by Democrats and passed 220 to 210 almost entirely along party lines. According to reports, if signed into law, it would be the most comprehensive enhancement of federal protections since the 1960s.

The bill contains a wide variety of provisions, but the most significant fall into two broader categories: creating uniform standards for voting and increasing financial transparency.

Regarding the voting rights standards, among other things, the bill would:

  • Weaken restrictive state voter ID laws.
  • Mandate that state governments use existing records to automatically register voters.
  • Guarantee no-excuse mail voting and at least 15 days of early voting for all federal elections.
  • Make it harder to purge voter rolls.
  • Restore voting rights to former felons.
  • End partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to appoint independent commissions to draw congressional districts.

As for what the bill aims to do regarding expanding transparency, it would:

  • Impose new disclosure requirements for “dark money” donations used to finance campaigns.
  • Create a public financing option for congressional campaigns.
  • Require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.
  • Require tech platforms to disclose political advertising information.

Arguments For And Against

Democrats have argued that this legislation is essential to protecting and ensuring the right to vote. 

The task, they say, is especially important now because Republican-controlled state legislatures have proposed dozens of bills that would roll back voting access as a reaction to former President Donald Trump’s loss and efforts to undermine the election. Many Republicans have used Trump’s false claims about voter fraud to promote their legislation.

Democrats have said these bills are a very transparent attempt by Republicans to consolidate their power because they know they benefit from lower voter turnout, and thus their strategy to win more races is just simply to make voting harder. As a result, Democrats have said the For the People Act is key to combatting these bills

“Everything is at stake,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) said Wednesday. “We must win this race, this fight.”

Republicans, for their part, have argued that states, not the federal government, should make changes to how elections are run, and that the legislation would lead to fraud that benefits Democrats. 

“House Democrats do not get to take their razor-thin majority — which voters just shrunk — and use it to steamroll states and localities to try and prevent themselves from losing even more seats next time,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in response to the bill’s passage.

However, many have disputed that claim by noting that there is no evidence of widespread fraud that helped Democrats in the last election. By contrast, there are years of evidence that Republicans do benefit from making it harder for people to vote and gerrymandering districts, a fact that McConnell himself seemed to acknowledge by implying that Democrats win more when voting rights are expanded.

Despite Republican objections, recent polls have found that most Americans support having more voter protections. According to a January survey by Data for Progress, 67% of Americans back the For the People Act, including a majority of Republicans.

Still, the legislation is all but doomed in the Senate, which struck down an almost identical version passed by the House in 2019. While Democrats technically have a majority now, the current 50-50 split will require a minimum of 10 Republicans to join forces with all 50 Democrats to avoid the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press)

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Texas Governor Will Reopen State “100%” and End Mask Mandate Against Expert Advice

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  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Tuesday that he was opening the state “100%” and ending the mask mandate starting March 10, against health guidance from federal officials.
  • Abbott justified his decision by noting that nearly 6 million Texans have been vaccinated and hospitalizations are down in the state.
  • Experts, however, pointed out that less than 2 million of the state’s 29 million residents are fully inoculated, and the CDC currently ranks Texas 48th for vaccination rates out of all 50 states.
  • On Tuesday alone, governors in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Michigan as well as local leaders in Chicago and San Francisco also announced plans to ease COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott Announces Major COVID Policy Changes

Starting March 10, Texas will no longer have a state-wide mask mandate or any coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and facilities, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Tuesday.

The move represents the most expansive reopening of any state and makes Texas the largest state to lift its public masking requirement. However, it also goes entirely against the recommendation of the nation’s top experts.

During a press conference Monday, Rochelle Walensky, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned leaders against rolling back restrictions. She cited the fact that the recent nation-wide decline in cases has been stalling and that there has been community spread of the new variants  — three of which have been found in Texas, saying:

“With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” she said.

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,” she continued.

“Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of covid-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.” 

Conditions in Texas

While cases have been declining in Texas, like most of the country, there is still a lot of data that makes Abbott’s decision especially concerning.

According to The New York Times tracker, Texas still ranks within the top ten states with the highest weekly cases per capita, reporting a weekly average of just over 7,200. Texas also has more hot-spot counties than any other state, according to Business Insider’s analysis of the Times data, which found that 10 counties have reported more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents on average over the last week. 

Notably, that number could be skewed because of the massive drop in the testing due to a recent storm that left millions without power and clean water. In fact, experts have warned that Texas could see more COVID cases in the fallout of the storm because people were forced to shelter together.

Abbott, however, did not focus on any of that in his announcement. Instead, he cited other metrics, noting that nearly 5.7 Texans have been vaccinated. He also pointed to declines in hospitalizations.

But both of these justifications are misleading. While it is true that Texas has vaccinated close to 6 million people, according to the CDC, less than 2 million out of 29 million state residents have received both doses needed to be considered fully inoculated. 

Beyond that, the CDC’s latest vaccination report ranks Texas 48th in vaccination rates out of all 50 states. Part of that is tied to the lag the state faced because of the storm, but experts still say this just proves that the state needs to be focus on catching up and vaccinating more people instead of rolling back restrictions.

To that point, public health officials have also pushed back against Abbott’s use of declining hospitalization rates as a rationale for his reopening plans. They warned that current hospitalization declines are already slowing and could reverse, and that will only get worse with reopenings.

Other States Reopen

Texas, however, is not the only state that has rolled back restrictions lately, or even just in the past 24 hours.

On Tuesday alone, the governors of Louisiana and Michigan as well as the mayors of Chicago and San Francisco all announced that they would be easing some restrictions on businesses and/or the capacity at which they operate.

Right after Abbott’s announcement, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) made a nearly identical one with an even shorter timeline. In a tweet, he said that starting Wednesday, he would lift all county mask mandates and allow businesses to “operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules.”

The recent easing of restrictions is part of a broader trend — and not just in states that have Republican governors or large conservative populations.

While California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) slammed Abbott’s move as “absolutely reckless,” he has also been widely condemned by leaders in his state for recently rolling back numerous restrictions.

Over the last few weeks, the Democratic governors of Virginia, North Carolina, and New York have all also lifted or otherwise modified regulations to make them less restrictive. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Dallas Morning News) (Business Insider)

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