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In unusual statement, Feds say a handful of ballots were discarded in key Pennsylvania county

In a move that confounded some elections experts, the Justice Department on Thursday announced preliminary findings of a probe into discarded general election ballots in a key Pennsylvania county. 

U.S. Attorney David Freed of the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced Thursday that a federal investigation found that nine military general election ballots were discarded in Luzerne County. Seven were marked for President Trump, and the other two are unknown, said Freed, a Republican. 

Mr. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the security of mail-in voting, and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany mentioned the announcement minutes before the U.S. the attorney’s office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania posted it on Twitter.

“I can confirm for you that Trump ballots, ballots for the president were found in Pennsylvania.  And I believe you should be getting more information on that shortly,” she said. “Here, in the last 24 hours, they were found cast aside.”

Mr. Trump himself appeared to allude to the forthcoming announcement that morning in a radio interview with Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade. 

“Eight ballots in an office yesterday in a certain state and they had ‘Trump’ written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can,” he said. “This is what’s going to happen. And we’re investigating that.” 

In the initial release, the Justice Department said that all nine ballots had been cast for Mr. Trump and then issued a correction hours later stating that two of the ballots had been resealed and their contents were unknown. 

The Justice Department released a summary letter sent to the Luzerne County Board of Elections later in the day that said, “The majority of the recovered materials were found in an outside dumpster.” The letter also said the investigation also uncovered four empty mail-in ballot envelopes. 

In the letter, Freed wrote,  “It was explained to investigators the envelopes used for official overseas, military, absentee and mail-in ballot requests are so similar, that the staff believed that adhering to the protocol of preserving envelopes unopened would cause them to miss such ballot requests.”

Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and former Justice Department official, said it’s typical for the department to investigate ballots not being counted, but that it’s highly irregular to release preliminary findings before the investigation is complete and even more out of the ordinary to release the contents of the ballots in question. 

“There is no—literally no legitimate law enforcement reason to identify the candidate for whom those ballots were cast. It does not matter who they were voting for,” he told CBS News. “The ballots were either properly or improperly handled. To include that information makes this a partisan act rather than a legal one.”

The Luzerne County district attorney’s office said in a statement that it was told of “issues with a small number of mail-in ballots,” on September 17. That was the same day that the state Supreme Court ruled that the Green Party would not be on the ballot, lifting a stay and allowing the secretary of the commonwealth to certify the ballot. 

Luzerne District Attorney Stephanie Salavantis, a Republican, told CBS News the county elections office had already sent some military ballots to voters ahead of the court’s decision because of a deadline to send them out by September 19, 45 days before Election Day. The local district attorney’s office found out about the returned ballots because some of them had been opened, despite state law stating that they can’t be opened until Election Day. 

Luzerne County Manager David Pedri said in a statement Friday that the nine discarded ballots that sparked the federal probe were “incorrectly discarded” by temporary independent contractor who has since been fired. He also says the election director alerted the local district attorney’s office about the incident.

More Pennsylvanians are expected to vote by mail than ever before in the November election. It’ll be the first time any voter in the state can do so without an excuse in a general election. Over 1.5 million voted by mail in the primary, leading to delays in the results, and election officials expect that number to double in the general election. About 34% of Pennsylvanians plan to vote by mail, according to a recent Franklin and Marshall poll, and Democrats are expected to vote by mail at far higher rates than Republicans. 

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