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- 45th President of the United States
A temporary employee “incorrectly discarded” a handful of ballots in mid-September, the county manager of Luzerne County, Pa. said Thursday, but county officials were unaware of who the ballots were cast for until the Department of Justice identified the voters as supporters of President Donald Trump.
In a lengthy statement issued on Friday, County Manager C. David Pedri laid out how ballots were discarded and how county officials discovered the problem and notified law enforcement.
The ballots shot into national news on Thursday when the DOJ issued a pair of unusual press releases in apparent coordination with the White House, which teased the announcement earlier in the day. Election experts accused the Justice Department of politicizing a still-pending investigation — and pointed to the revelation that seven of the nine discarded ballots had been cast for Trump as especially concerning.
Pedri’s statement said that an unidentified “temporary seasonal independent contractor” was assigned to sort mail received by the elections bureau, and started work on Sept. 14.
On Sept. 16, Luzerne County Elections Director Shelby Watchilla discovered that the worker “incorrectly discarded into the office trash UMOVA ballots” — which are ballots provided to Americans living overseas and military voters — and she “immediately began an internal inquiry and informed her direct supervisor,” Perdri said. Following the inquiry, county staff contacted the local district attorney, who referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the region.
Pedri said all garbage from the Elections Bureau for the days the temporary worker was employed was “placed in a dumpster and secured” by county staff. “Each bag of garbage from the entire building in the dumpster was searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania State Police as well as Luzerne County staff. All items of concern were taken into custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigations.”
The statement said that local elections staffers “were unaware for whom the ballots were cast until” Thursday’s announcement from the DOJ. The ballots remain in FBI custody, and the county said it will attempt to contact voters who were affected when they are returned.
Election experts and advocates have been sharply critical of the Trump administration's involvement — which reached all the way to the Oval Office on Thursday.
“It is really improper for DOJ to be putting out a press release with partial facts,” Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, told POLITICO on Thursday. “And it is career-endingly improper to designate the candidate for whom the votes are cast. There is no federal statute on which the identity of the preferred candidate depends.” Levitt said that it wasn’t necessarily problematic that an investigation was opened in the first place.
Mike Mikus, a spokesman for The Voter Project, a Pennsylvania-based voter advocacy group, said the timing of a lawsuit by Trump’s campaign also raises questions.
Pennsylvania, which Trump won narrowly in an upset in 2016 by energizing voters in rural areas and small towns, is crucial to the president's re-election hopes in 2020. Before Trump carried it by a wide margin in 2016, the state's northeastern Luzerne County had recently voted for Democratic presidential candidates.
The Trump team and state Republicans have sued Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Commonwealth and a Democrat, to try to ban drop boxes for mail ballots, toss out so-called “naked ballots," and allow poll watchers to volunteer outside of their county. They argued in the case that “unmonitored mail-in voting ... provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.” Last month, Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan ordered the Trump campaign to provide evidence of voter fraud, and it failed to come up with proof with mail ballots.
The campaign has a new court deadline, Mikus said, for discovery on Tuesday. “Now they have a deadline before the same federal judge to offer some evidence that voter fraud is rampant here in Pennsylvania,” he said. "The timing is surely suspicious.”
The White House knew of the investigation in the count ahead of Thursday's Justice Department press releases. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany teased the forthcoming announcement from the briefing room podium the investigation before it was made official, and Trump himself alluded to it in a Fox News Radio interview earlier in the day.
On Friday, ABC News first reported that Attorney General Bill Barr personally briefed Trump on the investigation prior to it being announced — which POLITICO has not independently confirmed.
The Department of Justice did not respond to multiple requests for comment, both on ABC News' reporting and the county’s statement.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania said the office is “currently reviewing” the statement from the county, adding that the office had no further comment beyond what was released on Thursday.
Trump has consistently sought to undermine trust in the upcoming election, and his campaign amplified the DOJ’s announcement.
On Friday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows rebuked FBI Director Christopher Wray for testifying this week that the bureau had seen no evidence of “any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”
“With all due respect to Director Wray, he has a hard time finding emails in his own FBI, let alone figuring out whether there’s any kind of voter fraud,” Meadows said in an interview with CBS News.
Luzerne County officials, however, expressed confidence in the process that had identified and disclosed the discarded ballots.
“While the actions of this individual has cast a concern, the above statement shows that the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works,” Pedri said in his statement. “An error was made, a public servant discovered it and reported it to law enforcement at the local, state and federal level who took over to ensure the integrity of the system in place.”
“I’m glad that Luzerne County jumped on this quickly, which is the right thing to do," Luzerne County Democratic Party chair Kathy Bozinski said. "Our county council is actually a Republican majority, and Republicans and Democrats on county council are working together to investigate how this happened and make sure this doesn’t happen again."
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.