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Feds, In Unusual Statement, Announce They're Investigating A Few Discarded Ballots

An official Democratic primary mail-in ballot and secrecy envelope for the Pennsylvania primary in Pittsburgh.
An official Democratic primary mail-in ballot and secrecy envelope for the Pennsylvania primary in Pittsburgh.

Federal authorities say they've been asked to look into the discovery of some mailed ballots in Pennsylvania, an announcement that has appalled former Justice Department officials and voting experts.

Updated at 5:01 p.m. ET

The FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania said they are investigating "potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections," according to a statement Thursday.

Authorities said that they had recovered nine military ballots that had been discarded and that seven of the ballots had been cast for President Trump. Two ballots had been resealed in envelopes and are in the custody of federal investigators.

Pennsylvania State Police and the FBI have been working to get answers and conducting interviews, the statement said.

The potential voting irregularities in Pennsylvania came to light after Trump mentioned them, off hand, in an interview with a Fox radio host Thursday.

"We have to be very careful with the ballots," the president told reporters later, according to a news pool report. He described what he called a "scam" where ballots had been found in the trash. The president has been criticizing the integrity of this year's election for months.

"We want to make sure the election is honest, and I'm not sure that it can be," Trump continued.

Highly unusual situation

Voting rights experts and Justice Department veterans immediately reacted to the unusual press statement from U.S. Attorney David J. Freed.

Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the timing of the announcement alone raises many questions.

"It is the vital duty of government not to announce partial facts and 'potential issues' in pending investigations," Levitt said in an email interview. "Indeed, it's quite improper to announce the fact of an inquiry. And grotesquely improper to announce whom the ballots were cast for, as if that mattered in the investigation."

On the other hand, Levitt said, it would not be improper to investigate if local officials were refusing to set aside and count valid ballots. But it's not clear that's what happened, he added.

Levitt said the Trump Justice Department had issued guidance in 2017 requiring that "any criminal investigation by the department must be conducted in a way that minimizes the likelihood that the investigation itself may become a factor in the election."

Matt Wolking, who handles rapid response communications for the Trump campaign, highlighted the probe and concluded, "Democrats are trying to steal the election."

The county in Pennsylvania where authorities said they were investigating the in the 2016 election.

Matthew Miller, a former press spokesman for President Barack Obama's Justice Department, said in a tweet that the U.S. Attorney's press release amounted to an "in-kind contribution" to the Trump reelection campaign, since it amplified the president's allegations about the dangers of mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Federal officials said they launched the probe at the request of the Luzerne County, Pa., district attorney, Stefanie Salavantis. She leads a working group on the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which is spearheaded by Attorney General Bill Barr.

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