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 from 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.
David Pedri, the Luzerne County manager, said in a statement Friday that the nine ballots that sparked a federal probe were "incorrectly discarded" by a temporary independent contractor in the county election office who has since been fired. Pedri also said the Luzerne election director alerted the local district attorney's office about the incident.
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 additionally found four empty mail-in ballot envelopes.
The county elections office opened nearly all the envelopes it received, both containing ballot requests and ballots themselves, Freed said in the letter.
"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," Freed wrote. " Our interviews further revealed that this issue was a problem in the primary election — therefore a known issue — and that the problem has not been corrected."
Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and former Justice Department official, said it's typical for the Justice 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 Thursday that it was informed of "issues with a small number of mail-in ballots," on September 17. The official ballot in the state wasn't certified until that day, but the county had begun mailing Uniformed Military and Overseas Voters Act ballots August 25, as law requires, Pedri said.
More Pennsylvanians are expected to vote by mail than ever before in the November election. It'll be the first time any voter can do so without an excuse in a general election in Pennsylvania. Over 1.5 million did so in the state's 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.