A federal prosecutor did little to lift the pall of suspicion on a case involving nine allegedly mishandled military ballots in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, though he seemed to acknowledge that the incident stemmed from a mistake rather than a deliberate scheme.
A letter late Thursday from U.S. Attorney David Freed to a local election official left many questions about the matter unanswered. Still, in the vein of his bizarre press release earlier in the day, he let linger implications of some malicious intent without including any details of possible criminal activity.
“The preliminary findings of this inquiry are troubling and the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections must comply with all applicable state and federal election laws and guidance to ensure that all votes—regardless of party—are counted to ensure an accurate election count,” Freed said in the letter.
The situation blew up on Thursday when Freed’s office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued the highly unusual press release revealing the pending investigation and releasing selective details, like that all nine ballots were cast for President Donald Trump. A second press release corrected that only seven of the ballots were known to be cast for him.
Former Department of Justice officials immediately decried the release of partial information so early in the investigation, especially so close to the election.
Freed’s letter seemed to offer a relatively benign explanation for what had happened, though the overall tone of the letter was still one of alarm and suspicion.
“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 said.
Due to a court delay in determining whether the Green Party candidate qualified to be on the ballot, some Pennsylvania counties are still finishing finalizing their ballots to mail, so it’s unclear how ballots could have been returned already. However, there are special considerations for military ballots which could be at play here. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act mandates that absentee ballots be sent out 45 days before the election.
Luzerne County did not immediately respond to questions about when the military ballots were mailed this year. Members of the military can also use Federal Write-In Absentee Ballots (FWAB) if there isn’t enough time for them to receive and send back an absentee ballot before the election. Notably, those write-in ballots are usually considered backups, and are not counted if the official absentee ballot does end up arriving on time.
It’s not clear whether FWABs were involved in the alleged incident in Luzerne County.
The suspicions aroused by Freed’s initial press release set MAGA world ablaze, with a Trump campaign official firing off a now-deleted tweet about “100%” of the ballots being cast for the President, adding that the incident is proof that Democrats are trying to “steal the election.”
The White House team hopped aboard the indignation train.
EVERY vote matters. 9 military votes MATTER. Call me old fashioned: but I believe those willing to serve our nation in uniform especially deserve to have their vote counted accurately. https://t.co/MHpT9rrHx8
— Alyssa Farah (@Alyssafarah) September 24, 2020
“This is an ongoing investigation where there is no public interest reason to override the usual policy of not commenting – and especially not to say for whom the ballots were cast,” tweeted Matt Miller, a former spokesman for the DOJ during the Obama administration. “An unprecedented in kind contribution to the president’s campaign.”
Indeed, Trump gleefully amplified the situation on Thursday, which neatly fits into his constant, baseless claims that mail-in voting is unreliable and rife with fraud.
“These ballots are a horror show,” he told Fox News host Brian Kilmeade on his radio show. “They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can.They were Trump ballots — eight ballots in an office yesterday in — but in a certain state and they were — they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can.”
It’s still unclear what happened with the “discarded” ballots, and why some of the materials were found in an outside dumpster. In Pennsylvania, no ballots are to be opened until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
Shelby Watchilla, the director of elections for Luzerne County, reportedly discovered the ballots last week and immediately reported them to the authorities. Luzerne County district attorney Stefanie Salavantis called in Freed to investigate. Salvantis serves on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, a group led by Attorney General Bill Barr.