President Donald Trump and his campaign are spreading disinformation about an incident in Pennsylvania where nine ballots were improperly discarded, and are falsely claiming it proves widespread “voter fraud” and that Democrats are “trying to steal the election.”
According to federal and local authorities, an election worker improperly threw out nine military ballots in Luzerne County, and seven of the ballots were marked for Trump. Election experts said the incident raised legitimate questions about election procedures, but also condemned the Justice Department for politicizing the situation by highlighting that the votes were for Trump.
Team Trump has gone much farther than the established facts, and have capitalized on the chaos to make incendiary and baseless allegations against Trump’s political opponents.
“They throw them out if they have the name Trump on it, I guess,” Trump said on Thursday, which he echoed at an event in Georgia on Friday, when he brought up the discarded ballots.
The President’s son, Eric Trump, tweeted that the incident was “voter fraud.” Matt Wolking, a top spokesman for the Trump campaign, tweeted that it was proof that “Democrats are trying to steal the election,” before deleting the post. Trump tweeted a Fox News segment that contained multiple falsehoods about the incident, and added, “Democrats are Rigging our 2020 Election!”
Facts First: There is no proof whatsoever of an anti-Trump conspiracy. There is not widespread fraud in US elections, and this isolated incident does not prove there is widespread vote-rigging. Local officials said the incident was an “error” by a brand-new election worker, and CNN reported that investigators believe it occurred due to lack of training – not intentional fraud.
The investigation is still underway, and more developments may emerge. But the claims being pushed by Team Trump are exaggerations of what appears to have actually occurred.
Luzerne County officials said in a statement released Friday that the incident was caused by a “temporary seasonal independent contractor” who “incorrectly discarded (the ballots) into the office trash” on their third day in the election office. Officials said the county’s election director realized what happened, dismissed the employee, and quickly launched an investigation.
The officials called this an “error” and said the fact that it was quickly noticed and investigated proves that “the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works.”
People briefed on the matter told CNN that federal investigators are not treating the incident as intentional fraud but rather as something that occurred because of poorly designed procedures for handling mail-in ballots, and because newly hired election workers weren’t properly trained.
The Justice Department has never used the phrase “voter fraud” to describe this incident. In a press release on Thursday, the department said it was in the early stages of investigating “reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots” in Luzerne County.
Experts were shocked that the Justice Department revealed that the incident affected Trump voters – undermining the extraordinary efforts election officials take to maintain ballot secrecy.
Also, Attorney General William Barr briefed Trump about the issue, and Trump immediately started publicly touting the information to attack mail-in voting – before the news release was sent out. Legal experts and Trump critics said Barr’s role raised suspicion that he was using the Justice Department to bolster Trump’s campaign and give him more material to attack mail-in voting.
The Justice Department says Barr briefed Trump because information was circulating in local media. While the Justice Department’s announcement was highly unusual, federal prosecutors do have some leeway to inform the public about voting integrity issues ahead of an election.