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PA county says temporary contractor threw out military mail-in ballots

mail-in ballots (Ian Lucero/Flickr)

A temporary worker was responsible for the premature opening and discarding of mail-in military ballots, Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri said in statement released Friday.

The worker was in the office from Sept. 14 to Sept. 16 and immediately removed from service when county Election Director Shelby Watchilla discovered and reported problems with the ballots, Pedri said in the detailed statement compiled in response to Thursday’s public announcement of the discarded ballots by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Cameras, increased training and outreach to the Pennsylvania Department of State are among the steps the county is taking to address concerns and reassure the public, the statement said.

According to Pedri’s statement:

The county elections bureau started transmitting Uniformed Military and Overseas Voters Act (UMOVA) ballots for the upcoming Nov. 3 general election on Aug. 25, in accordance with the state election calendar. These ballots are provided to military voters and U.S. citizens living abroad.

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Following a long-standing practice, the county elections bureau added temporary seasonal independent contractors to assist with office tasks in the months leading up to the election.

One individual was contracted who started work on Sept. 14 was assigned to sort incoming mail.

The afternoon of Sept. 16, Watchilla discovered this contractor incorrectly discarded UMOVA ballots into the office trash.

Watchilla immediately began an internal inquiry and informed her direct supervisor. The temporary independent contractor, who was not identified, was removed from service and informed not to return.

After the internal inquiry was completed, Watchilla contacted the county law office, which researched the matter and concluded it must be reported to authorities. The administration immediately contacted the county District Attorney’s Office seeking an investigation and assistance.

All election bureau garbage from the period in which the independent contractor was on county property had been placed in a dumpster that was secured by county staff. The FBI, state police, county staff and the District Attorney’s Office searched every bag of garbage from the entire building that had been thrown into the dumpster. The FBI has custody of all items of concern.

County election staff was unaware which candidates had been selected in the ballots cast until the U.S. Attorney’s Office disclosure, which stated seven of the nine ballots were cast for Donald Trump.

Upon return of the ballots currently held by the FBI, the county will attempt to contact the voters involved and process their votes. The county encourages all individuals who have already mailed their UMOVA ballots back to the county to check their ballot status at the Pennsylvania Department of State website (www.dos.pa.gov).

The county will be providing extensive supplemental training to both full-time staff and temporary seasonal independent contractors and has a security camera in the elections bureau to actively monitor and ensure that all staff are strictly adhering to proper procedures and protocols.

The Pennsylvania Department of State also has been contacted to provide additional assistance regarding training and best practices.

Mail-in ballots for the general public are on track to be mailed out starting on Oct. 5, and all additional training and updates for staff will be completed by that date.

”While the actions of this individual has cast a concern, the above statement shows that the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works,” Pedri wrote.

“An error was made. A public servant discovered it and reported it to law enforcement at the local, state and federal level,” Pedri added, noting these investigators took over “to ensure the integrity of the system in place.”

“The Luzerne County voters should be assured that the election will move forward with transparency and integrity. Every properly cast vote will be counted,” he wrote, thanking investigators “for their professional work.”

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© 2020 The Times Leader