Politics DOJ announcement on Pennsylvania ballot investigation baffles election experts
Voting By Mail? Here Are the Deadlines in Every U.S. State
Voting By Mail? Here Are the Deadlines in Every U.S. StateBefore the pandemic, five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah—already held all-mail elections, meaning every active registered voter automatically received a ballot in the mail that would allow them to bypass a physical polling place. Due to COVID-19, several more states, including California and New Jersey, are adopting this model for the 2020 election. Twenty-nine states and Washington D.C. already allowed for “no excuse” mail-in absentee ballots, meaning voters can request a mail-in ballot without having to meet certain qualifications.
Election experts and lawyers are bewildered by a press release from the Department of Justice, in which the department said it had begun an inquiry into a handful of military ballots in a northeastern Pennsylvania county. Most unusually, the release revealed that the voters had cast their ballots for President Donald Trump.
On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced it had opened an inquiry into nine ballots that were found “discarded,” without elaborating on what exactly that meant. All nine ballots had been cast for Trump, the release said.
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Mail-in ballots, safe polling locations, and fraud allegations are only a few of the concerns in the pandemic election.“I’m having all these worries despite living in a state with some of the best voter protections, best mail-in voting infrastructure, and highest voter turnout,” Fickling told Recode. “I can’t even imagine how worried people must be in places like Texas.
The Justice Department later, saying that in fact seven had been cast for Trump and two had been resealed, meaning it could not be determined for whom the other ballots were cast. The press releases did not specify any particular crime or allege any wrongdoing, and said election officials were cooperating in learning what went wrong.
Election experts were bewildered at the few details included within the press releases and the unorthodox manner in which they were announced, and were troubled by the fact that the Justice Department said the ballots had been cast for the president.
“It is hard to express how illegitimate the press release is. That’s the problem,” Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, said in an interview, noting that it wasn’t necessarily bad that the department was investigating.
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North Carolina's disparity, similar to gaps in other states, raises concerns about systemic racism and voter disenfranchisement tainting elections.RALEIGH, North Carolina — Sandra Cosby is no stranger to the election process — or to voting by mail.
“It is really improper for DOJ to be putting out a press release with partial facts,” Levitt continued. “And it is career-endingly improper to designate the candidate for whom the votes are cast. There is no federal statute on which the identity of the preferred candidate depends.”
The White House also knew in advance about the department’s announcement. “I can confirm for you that Trump ballots, ballots for the president, were found in Pennsylvania. And I believe you should be getting more information on that shortly,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at her Thursday briefing — shortly before the first, errant Justice Department announcement.
Trump himself seemingly alluded to the same ballots in an interview earlier in the day with Fox News Radio's Brian Kilmeade.
"These ballots are a horror show. They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can.They were Trump ballots -- eight ballots in an office yesterday in -- but in a certain state and they were -- they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can," he said.
The Justice Department released a 'bizarre' statement saying it's investigating 'potential issues with mail-in ballots' in Pennsylvania, and no one knows what it means
The DOJ deleted an initial statement about the investigation from its website and released a revised statement shortly thereafter.Initially, the department announced that a "small number of military ballots were discarded" and that investigators had "recovered nine ballots at this time." It added that "all nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In the Fox News Radio interview, Trump also seemed to be conflating these ballots with universal mail-in ballots, which Trump calls "unsolicited" ballots. However, Pennsylvania is not sending ballots to voters who do not request one.
The revised statement from the Justice Department said that it “began an inquiry into reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots” at the board of elections for Luzerne County, which Trump carried by.
“This is both bizarre and disturbing — U.S. Attorney’s Offices don’t issue reports on pending investigations— and certainly not reports so blatantly contrived to provide political ballast for a sitting President’s campaign narrative,” David Laufman, a DOJ veteran,.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ballots being opened or discarded, if true, is concerning. In Pennsylvania, ballots cannot be opened until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
A letter from U.S. Attorney David Freed, released after the statement, provided some new details of the problem, and seemingly attributed at least part of the problem to sloppy work by election administrators — who might have confused actual completed ballots with mere applications for ballots.
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Pennsylvania voters this fall will have to seal their mail ballots in not one but two envelopes in order for their votes to count.Pennsylvania, a critical battleground state worth 20 votes in the electoral college, is permitting all voters to vote by mail without an excuse for the first time in 2020. It is also the site of multiple key congressional and state legislative races.
“[O]ur investigation has revealed that all or nearly all envelopes received in the elections office were opened as a matter of course,” read the, addressed to Shelby Watchilla, the director of elections for Luzerne County. “It was explained to investigators the envelopes used for official overseas, military, absentee and mail-in ballot requests are so similar, that the staff believed that adhering to the protocol of preserving envelopes unopened would cause them to miss such ballot requests.”
“Our goal, that I am sure you share, is to ensure that every properly cast ballot is counted,” Freed concluded.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, praised Freed’s work in an interview, saying it should instill confidence in voters. "We'll have to wait and see exactly what United States Attorney Freed and the FBI and the local district attorney came up with, but I think that should give the public confidence in knowing that all of us in law enforcement are doing our job to make sure that legal, eligible votes are counted."
The Department of Justice was investigating at the request of Stefanie Salavantis, the Luzerne County district attorney. An announcement from her office on Tuesday said that the DA’s office “was notified by Luzerne County Administration regarding issues with a small number of mail-in ballots,” and that federal authorities took over the investigation on Monday.
“The investigation is in its early stages and we are confident that it will be successfully resolved so it will not have an impact on the integrity of the election process,”.
County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said in a statement on Thursday that Watchilla, the county’s elections director, had initially flagged the problems,. “County administration immediately reported her findings to the authorities,” the release said, which thanked law enforcement agencies for a quick response.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
Election 2020: How to track your mail-in ballot .
According to a CNN review, 45 states and the District of Columbia allow you to track your ballot just like an Amazon package or food delivery. How ballot tracking worksEach ballot gets a specific number: Most states, with the help of USPS, send ballots envelopes with a unique set of numbers for each individual voter. Those numbers are often known as Intelligent Mail Barcodes, which allow the Postal Service to track the ballot.You can register to track them: They also enable states and localities to use ballot-tracking websites.