By ALISA WIERSMA, ABC News
(LUZERNE COUNTY, Penn.) — An incident regarding “a small number” of discarded mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania — which has sparked a Department of Justice investigation and drawn the attention of President Donald Trump — appears to be rooted in an administrative error by a temporary contractor working at the Luzerne County Elections Bureau, according to the county manager.
He also said county officials did not know which candidate was selected on the ballots until the Justice Department publicly disclosed the information earlier this week.
Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri said in a statement issued Friday that a temporary independent contractor who was assigned to sort mail at the elections bureau “incorrectly discarded into the office trash UMOVA ballots,” which is an acronym for ballots from military and overseas voters. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Pennsylvania said on Thursday that nine ballots had been found in a dumpster next to the elections building with seven cast for Trump and the other two resealed inside their envelopes.
“Luzerne County Elections staff were unaware for whom the ballots were cast until the disclosure via Press Release of the United States Attorney on September 24, 2020,” the statement reads.
The temporary employee began working at the elections bureau on Sept. 14, Pedri said, and the mistake was discovered by Luzerne County Elections Director Shelby Watchilla two days later.
“Ms. Watchilla immediately began an internal inquiry and informed her direct supervisor. The temporary independent contractor was removed from service and informed not to return,” Pedri said in the statement.
Following the internal inquiry, Watchilla “contacted Luzerne County Office of Law who researched the matter and advised that this needed to be reported to the authorities,” after which a request was made to the district attorney’s office.
Pedri said “all garbage from the Elections Bureau” that accumulated during the three-day period of the independent contractor’s employment “was placed in a dumpster and secured by Luzerne County staff.”
“Each bag of garbage from the entire building in the dumpster was searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania State Police as well as Luzerne County staff. All items of concern were taken into custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigations,” he wrote.
Ballot envelopes cannot be opened until the canvass is under way, and it is incumbent on counties to properly store and maintain the security of returned ballots, according to the Pennsylvania Election Code. Pedri said Luzerne County “will attempt to contact the voters involved and process their votes.”
The county, along with the Pennsylvania Department of State, plans to provide extra training to all staff, and has installed a security camera in the elections bureau to “actively monitor and ensure that all staff are strictly adhering to proper procedures and protocols.”
A Justice Department official told ABC News Friday that Attorney General William Barr personally briefed Trump about the DOJ’s investigation prior to it being made public Thursday. The president went on to discuss the incident on Fox News Radio’s “Brian Kilmeade Show,” claiming without evidence it backed up his baseless claims on fraudulent mail-in voting.
FBI Director Christopher Wray discussed fraudulent voting during a Senate hearing Thursday, saying, “We have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”
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