The Justice Department said Thursday that it is investigating “potential issues with mail-in ballots” in the swing state of Pennsylvania and, in a highly unusual disclosure, revealed that several ballots marked for President Donald Trump were “discarded.”
US Attorney David Freed said a preliminary inquiry determined that nine “military ballots were discarded” and that seven of them “were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.” The incident occurred in Luzerne County, a swing county in northeastern Pennsylvania that is home to Wilkes-Barre. Trump flipped the county in 2016 after years of narrow Democratic wins.
The statement was highly unusual because it highlighted the fact that the ballots were marked for Trump — which immediately raised suspicions that the Justice Department was trying to furnish material that Trump could promote for political gain. Indeed, Trump and other White House aides used the information, even before it was made public, to attack mail-in voting.
Election officials go to extraordinary lengths to protect ballot secrecy. It’s unclear how investigators figured out who the votes were for, and why they made that information public.
Additionally, the Justice Department typically does not comment about ongoing investigations, though there are rules allowing it when there is a public interest at stake, like election integrity.
The federal probe was apparently triggered by a request from Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, a Republican who announced Tuesday that federal investigators were assisting with an election issue. Freed, also a Republican, was appointed by Trump in 2017. A spokesperson for Salavantis told CNN that the nine affected ballots are for the general election. Many military and overseas ballots were sent out last weekend.
“It seems worth investigating, but I think it is really weird that they say who the votes were cast for,” CNN election law analyst Rick Hasen said in response to the announcement. “I think it will become fodder for the President to claim that people are messing with ballots in Pennsylvania.”
While any missing ballots can cause a problem, the issue appears to be miniscule, based on statements from investigators. More than 6.1 million Pennsylvanians voted in the 2016 election.
Trump uses news to criticize mail-in voting
In an interview earlier on Thursday morning, before the Justice Department announcement, Trump seized on the Pennsylvania situation to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election. It wasn’t clear at the time what he was referring to, and there had been local reports of an inquiry, but his comments generally align with the information released by Freed on Thursday afternoon.
Trump, who had apparently been briefed, told Fox News Radio, “They found six ballots in an office yesterday, in a garbage can. They were Trump ballots. Eight ballots, in an office yesterday in a certain state. … This is what’s going to happen. And we’re investigating that.”