In the effort led by President Trump to create a misleading impression of widespread voter fraud, administration and campaign officials have seized on nine mail-in military ballots in a Pennsylvania county that Mr. Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Federal officials have disclosed that they are investigating whether local elections officials improperly discarded the ballots, at least seven of which were cast for Mr. Trump, they said. A Justice Department official said on Friday that Attorney General William P. Barr briefed Mr. Trump this week on the case.
The disclosure of the investigation’s existence was highly unusual and came as Mr. Trump has ramped up his false assertions that widespread mail-in voting is rife with fraud. It prompted elections and legal experts to express fears that political appointees were using the levers of law enforcement to undermine voters’ confidence in the results of the election.
“There is a battle here about the narrative in fraud and voting, and it looks like there’s a continued effort to gather as much evidence as possible to give them any little scraps for that narrative,” said Samuel W. Buell, a criminal law professor at Duke University School of Law.
Regardless of Mr. Barr’s intentions in briefing Mr. Trump, Mr. Buell said, the attorney general and the president discussing an ongoing criminal investigation created a perception that they might be acting improperly, especially because the situation involved such a small number of ballots in a state where six million people are expected to vote.
The issue in Pennsylvania emerged on Thursday and centered on mail-in ballots cast in Luzerne County, in the eastern part of the state.
According to a timeline released on Friday by county officials, a contractor who started working for the county this month to process ballots had discarded several cast by members of the military into the office’s trash. It was unclear why.
Working with the F.B.I., local officials sifted through three days’ worth of trash this month in search of the ballots, uncovering the nine, according to the Justice Department.
The county, which is primarily controlled by Republicans, said on Friday that it had been unaware of whom the ballots were cast for until the Justice Department released the information.
Some of the ballots were said to be missing envelopes, and it was not clear whether they could be counted. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently sided with the Trump campaign in a lawsuit seeking to reject all ballots that arrived without the requisite secrecy envelope, which are known as naked ballots.
The president and his allies rolled out the information about the ballots throughout the day on Thursday, in a highly unusual public relations campaign.
It began when Mr. Trump gave an interview to Brian Kilmeade of Fox News radio in the morning, complaining about mail-in voting and sharing details that appeared to match the inquiry in Pennsylvania.
“These ballots are a horror show,” the president said. “They found six ballots in an office yesterday, in a garbage can. They were Trump ballots, eight ballots in an office yesterday, in a certain state. And they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can. This is what is going to happen, this is what is going to happen, and we are investigating that. It’s a terrible thing that is going on with these ballots — who is sending them?”
Election 2020 ›
Understand Mail-In Voting
- How to Vote: Because of the pandemic, many voting rules have changed this year, making it harder than usual to figure out how to cast your ballot. Here is some help to make sure your vote is counted.
- Rise in Mail Voting: About three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election — the most in U.S. history. Roughly 80 million mail ballots may flood election offices, more than double what was returned in 2016.
- Surge in Paper Mail: The long-troubled Postal Service may be overwhelmed by the task of delivering tens of millions more votes cast by mail.
- How to Count Ballots? There may be various battles over how to count ballots. Should mailed ballots be counted if they are received by Election Day or simply postmarked by Election Day? Does a ballot count if the post office does not postmark it at all?
- Do You Still Have Time?: Voters in 35 states can request ballots so close to Election Day that it may not be feasible for their ballots to be mailed to them and sent back to election officials in time to be counted. Here’s a list of state’s where it’s risky to procrastinate.
- A Long Road to Election Day: It is estimated that party organizations, campaigns and interest groups across the county have already filed 160 lawsuits trying to shape the rules of the election.
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