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The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday released a statement saying it is investigating “reports of potential issues with mail-in ballots” in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
Initially, the department announced that a “small number of military ballots were discarded” and that investigators had “recovered nine ballots at this time.” It added that “all nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.”
However, the statement was deleted from the DOJ’s website shortly after and a revised statement was released.
The second statement said that “of the nine ballots that were discarded and then recovered, 7 were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump. Two of the discarded ballots had been resealed inside their appropriate envelopes by Luzerne elections staff prior to recovery by the FBI and the contents of those 2 ballots are unknown.”
The revised statement said the FBI’s field office in Harrisburg began investigating the matter on Monday along with the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. It said the inquiry was launched at the request of Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and focused on “reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections.”
The statement said that FBI agents working with the Pennsylvania State Police have since conducted “numerous interviews and recovered certain physical evidence,” and that Luzerne County election officials “have been cooperative.”
“Our inquiry remains ongoing and we expect later today to share our up to date findings with officials in Luzerne County,” the statement added.
Both statements raised red flags with election experts and DOJ veterans who said they appeared to be politically motivated and may have violated department policy. It was also unclear what the statements meant when they said the ballots had been “discarded,” and whether the ballots in question were primary or general election ballots.
A DOJ spokesperson did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
“This is both bizarre and disturbing — US Attorney’s Offices don’t issue reports on pending investigations — and certainly not reports so blatantly contrived to provide political ballast for a sitting President’s campaign narrative,” David Laufman, a former senior official in the DOJ’s national security division, wrote on Twitter.
Indeed, shortly after the DOJ released its initial statement on the investigation, Matt Wolking, a deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, tweeted that the announcement was proof that “Democrats are trying to steal the election.”
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, also pointed to the first statement, tweeting, “Nine military mail-in ballots — ALL cast for President @realDonaldTrump — were found discarded in Pennsylvania! DOJ confirms.”
Trump and congressional Republicans have made a flurry of baseless attacks on voting by mail and mail-in ballots in recent months. The president has suggested, without evidence, that an increase in mail-in ballots in the wake of COVID-19 will lead to widespread voter fraud and a “rigged” general election.
Nonpartisan experts and multiple studies have seen no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and millions of Americans vote by mail every year. Trump and many of his top staff and family members have also voted by mail or tried to in recent years. And the president’s campaign and Republican officials are quietly encouraging absentee and mail-in voting amid fears that Trump’s claims will hurt Republicans by depressing turnout among his own voters.
Elie Honig, a longtime former federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, told Business Insider that it’s not only unusual for the DOJ to issue such a statement about an ongoing investigation, but it’s also “against DOJ’s own stated policy.”
Moreover, he said, “the fact that the purportedly discarded ballots were cast for Trump is entirely irrelevant to any criminal investigation. It’s fodder for a political talking point.”
Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and an election security expert, wrote on Twitter that it was “shocking” for the DOJ to announce who voters cast their ballots for. “The release of that information seems to be for political reasons,” he wrote.
David Becker, a former voting rights attorney at the DOJ, echoed that view and highlighted a number of other irregularities in the DOJ’s statement.
“Even more unexplainable is the fact that DOJ has already revised the statement,” he tweeted. “Now it’s only 7 votes, and no explanation of how these were discarded or found, or why they were opened, nor why they disclosed Pres vote at all, violating secrecy, and not other races.”
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