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DOJ discovers opened ballot envelopes in PA dumpster, other ‘troubling’ issues

A secrecy envelope for mailed voting ballots. (Chris Phan/Flickr)
September 25, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a Thursday letter, summarized “troubling” findings from an investigation of voting problems at the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections in Pennsylvania, including finding four emptied ballot envelopes, the majority of which were found in an outside dumpster.

Addressing Luzerne County Bureau of Elections director Shelby Watchilla, U.S. Attorney David Freed said investigators had found the four “apparently official, bar-coded, absentee ballot envelopes that were empty,” and said, “the majority of the recovered materials were found in an outside dumpster.”

The findings come after FBI agents found nine military absentee ballots that were discarded at the same election office. A DOJ statement said seven of the nine military ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump. The remaining two ballots were “resealed inside their appropriate envelopes by Luzerne elections staff prior to recovery by the FBI and the contents of those 2 ballots are unknown.”

In his Thursday letter, Freed said two of the recovered ballot envelopes had completed attestations and signatures on the reverse side. One envelope had a handwritten return address and was blank on the reverse side. The fourth empty envelope contained basic location information and the words “affirmation enclosed” on the reverse side.  The DOJ said, “The majority of the recovered materials were found in an outside dumpster.”

Freed also raised concerns that all mail being received at the election office was being opened, despite laws that require ballots to be stored and not counted until election day.

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Addressing the Luzerne election office, Freed said, “As you know, the appropriate method for processing received military ballots is to securely store the ballot, unopened, until such time as ballot pre-canvassing can begin, which is in no event earlier than 7:00 a.m. on Election Day. Opening a military or overseas ballot, or an absentee or mail-in ballot for that matter, violates the controlling statutes and is contrary to Pennsylvania Department of State guidance.”

Freed’s letter goes on to state, “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. Even though your staff has made some attempts to reconstitute certain of the improperly opened ballots, there is no guarantee that any of these votes will be counted in the general election. In addition, our investigation has revealed that all or nearly all envelopes received in the elections office were opened as a matter of course.”

Freed noted the ballots may have been opened because they are similar in appearance to mail-in or absentee ballot requests and election officials may have opened the ballots under the belief they were only ballot requests.

“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,” Freed stated.

Freed stated, “While the assigned investigators are continuing their work including reviewing additional discarded materials, it is imperative that the issues identified be corrected.”