The Justice Department announced that it has begun an inquiry into nine mail-in ballots that may have been thrown in the garbage at a Pennsylvania elections office. Last week, Luzerne County Elections Director Shelby Watchilla discovered the absentee ballots in a dumpster, and immediately reported the issue.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis then asked U.S. Attorney David Freed to investigate. Subsequently, the FBI joined the investigation.
According to a letter from Freed to the county elections director, the inquiry found that election staff had “improperly opened” nine military ballots before discarding them.
Of the nine trashed ballots, seven were open. The Justice Department now claims that they were cast in favor of Donald Trump. Two additional ballots had been resealed before their disposal, so it’s unclear which candidate those voters supported.
In addition to throwing away the ballots, part of the alleged crime is the fact that someone had opened the envelopes containing them. In Pennsylvania, processing of ballots cannot begin until 7 AM on Election Day. Prior to then, all ballots that have arrived in the mail must remain sealed.
According to Freed’s inquiry, workers at the Luzerne County elections office explained that envelopes containing absentee ballot requests, and the envelopes containing those actual ballots, look nearly identical. As a result, it is possible they had opened returned absentee ballots by accident, thinking they were requests.
“Even though your staff has made some attempts to reconstitute certain of the improperly opened ballots,” Freed wrote to the Luzerne County elections director, “there is no guarantee that any of these votes will be counted in the general election.”
The public statement has now fueled ongoing anxieties about the legitimacy of the upcoming election, particularly in the ever-critical state of Pennsylvania. President Trump, who regularly casts doubt on the viability of mail-in ballots, has already blasted the incident. On Fox News he claimed it as proof that Democrats plan to rig the entire election against him.
Election experts, meanwhile, find it highly unusual that the Justice Department would announce its inquiry, or reveal the candidates whom these ballots endorsed.
“It is the vital duty of government not to announce partial facts and ‘potential issues’ in pending investigations,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School. “Indeed, it’s quite improper to announce the fact of an inquiry. And grotesquely improper to announce whom the ballots were cast for, as if that mattered in the investigation.”
But most Americans just want to see an honest election. And with an historic number of voters expected to participate by mail-in ballot this year, the news does not exactly boost confidence in the system.