Fact check: False QAnon claim that Trump secretly watermarked mail-in ballots to prove fraud

The claim: President Trump secretly watermarked mail-in ballots to prove some ballots were fraudulent

President Donald Trump's most fervent supporters have heard his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and taken them one step further. QAnon conspiracy theorists are using coded messages to argue that Trump secretly watermarked mail-in ballots before the election to expose Democratic voter fraud.

“Okay I saw online, on social media that a watermark may have been used on the official ballots," YouTuber Chrissy Stafford said, exploring the false theory in a video published Nov. 4. "It's supposed to be little dots from the printer. That looks like little dots to me. Are you guys seeing this? What do you guys think? Is this the watermark?”

She held her camera up to what she claimed to be a 10X magnification gem scope so viewers could see small specks on what she said was her ballot strip.

Within days, the video, titled "Watermark on 2020 ballot?", had nearly half a million views.

USA TODAY could not message Stafford through her YouTube channel.

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Processing mail-in and absentee ballots on Nov. 4, 2020, in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Processing mail-in and absentee ballots on Nov. 4, 2020, in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

A QAnon conspiracy theory seeking to undermine election results and boost Trump

FactCheck.org debunked the claim that a watermark, or lack thereof, on ballots proves Democrats printed extra, illegitimate ballots.

QAnon followers believe Trump is the country’s savior from a corrupt government of elite pedophiles. Believers look for secret messages from an anonymous, online whistleblower who goes by “Q.”

QAnon believers have been trying to decode the phrase “watch the water” after "Q" posted it on message board 8kun (formerly 8chan) in February 2018. The conspiracy theorists have interpreted the term to be a coded message that Trump put watermarks on 2020 ballots so that he could later prove Democrats had created fraudulent ballots.

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QAnon demonstrators on Aug. 22, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.
QAnon demonstrators on Aug. 22, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.

Ballots don't come from federal government

Similarly misinformed posts claimed the Department of Homeland Security had announced it had premarked ballots with “non-radioactive isotope watermarks.” Reuters fact-checked the claim, complete with a fraudulent DHS press release, on Nov. 7 and found it was false.

Chris Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, debunked the bogus claim on Twitter Nov. 6, clarifying that the DHS and CISA do not design or audit ballots.

“Don't fall for these efforts to confuse & undermine confidence in the election,” he wrote alongside a photo that labeled the conspiracy theory a “rumor.”

Ballots would be difficult to uniformly watermark since they are created by local governments.

After each state decides its individual ballot design and the U.S. Postal Service approves its envelope, the design is sent to a printer for production. Through an extensive process, the ballots are printed, put in envelopes, addressed and mailed.

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Biggest ballot printer says theory 'defies logic'

Ballot printers are usually paid per ballot and expected to be able to provide the quantities needed by local governments. Those expectations were especially burdensome this year, Jeff Ellington, president and chief operating officer of Runbeck Election Services, the printing company that produced the most ballots in the country this year, told USA TODAY. Runbeck printed nearly 16 million packets and 35 million ballots, up from 4 million in 2016.

Ellington said that although he thought the idea of secret watermarks was "very cool, it's just not possible."

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"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."

Ellington explains Runbeck Election Services’ extensive ballot production and security process in an eight-minute YouTube video. According to Ellington, only a couple of counties in the entire country do their own printing.

He said that some states, like California, do have watermarks in their design and all ballots have QR codes to ensure they reach the correct voters. But these vary by locality and are not invisible, as the video argues.

Ellington told USA TODAY that the marks highlighted in the video were likely the result of the printing process or flaws on the paper.

"I would speculate it to their paper imperfections, or it's their printing equipment, just purging their printheads and a really small amount. I mean it took a 10x magnifier to see them," he said about the small specks in the video.

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YouTube audience makes QAnon connection

Neither FactCheck.org, Reuters nor USA TODAY could find any evidence that the specks were a watermark, but that didn’t stop QAnon followers from speculating.

Viewers expressed their support for the theory and speculation that the claimed conspiracy was even more covert in the video’s comment section.

“I always trust our great president and great genius people around him. Let them act and we will expose their crime to the whole world!" one viewer commented.

“Those are more than just dots, that is binary code that, across the page, will spell something,” one user wrote.

“That's likely to be the 'dummy' watermark the dems could easily forge,” another commenter speculated. "Meanwhile the real watermark is a bunch of dots that only appear when the ballot is illuminated with light at a specific wavelength."

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A person drops off an application for a mail-in ballot in Omaha, Neb., on Aug. 18.
A person drops off an application for a mail-in ballot in Omaha, Neb., on Aug. 18.

Our rating: False

A QAnon-related conspiracy theory claims President Donald Trump had mail-in ballots secretly watermarked so he could prove Democrats created fraudulent ballots. Federal officials and ballot printers confirm this would be impossible because mail-in ballots are designed by local governments and ordered from private printers. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: False QAnon claim that Trump watermarked mail-in ballots