Clearing Up What Happened With the Discarded Pennsylvania Ballots

The initial scant details led to the spread of misinformation.

Following a statement from the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on September 24 announcing an FBI inquiry into “reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections,” the slim details available led to viral misinformed claims about what occurred in the Pennsylvania county. A few hours later, the FBI issued a letter to the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections and released a revised statement, both of which provided more information about the mail-in ballots in question, corrected some errors in the first announcement, and directly discredited some of the viral claims on social media. However, such claims have persisted online, with some posts relying on outdated information and others making entirely unsubstantiated claims. It should be noted that despite the confidence with which many of these claims are made, the FBI’s inquiry is ongoing and has not determined what precisely happened. Here are the details that we know thus far:

According to the initial statement from U.S. Attorney David Freed: “Investigators have recovered nine ballots at this time. Some of those ballots can be attributed to specific voters and some cannot. All nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.” Some news stories and social media posts continue to claim that all the ballots were for Trump, but the FBI quickly corrected the figure: Both the letter and revisited statement state that seven of the ballots were cast for Trump, with two of the ballots’ votes unknown as they had been resealed.

Some claimed that the ballots were found in a ditch: There is nothing to support this in either the initial statement or later statements from the FBI. The letter to the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections notes that “the majority of recovered materials were found in an outside dumpster.”

The Luzerne County Board of Elections said that the ballots were mistakenly opened because of how similar the official envelopes used were to those used for mail-in ballot requests. The FBI’s letter states: “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.” The letter also notes that this was “a known issue” during primary elections.

The county manager of Luzerne issued a statement in which he claimed that the error with the ballots occurred because of a temporary seasonal independent contractor brought on to assist with the election season. The county is now contacting voters whose ballots were mistakenly opened to ensure their vote is counted.

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