Luzerne County ballot probe: What we know so far

Jerry Lynott and Jennifer Learn-Andes
The Times-Leader (TNS)
David Freed, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and several federal, state and local law enforcement agencies join forces with the York City community to conduct neighborhood walks in York to reduce crime and build trust, Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

Nine military mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 general election — at least seven for President Donald Trump — were found discarded as part of an investigation into Luzerne County election issues, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Thursday.

The majority of the recovered materials were found in an outside dumpster, the office said.

“The preliminary findings of this inquiry are troubling,” U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania David Freed said in a written presentation of initial findings to county Election Director Shelby Watchilla.

The presidential selections for the two other discarded ballots are unknown because they were previously recovered by elections staff and reinserted into what appeared to be their appropriate envelopes and then resealed.

More:Republicans lose a round in Pennsylvania mail voting dispute

More:Pennsylvania court gives Democrats wins in mail-in vote case

More:Mailed ballots can't be discarded over signature, Pennsylvania Department of State says

More:Surge in mail-in ballots could delay election results, so Wolf wants to change the rules

By law, the ballots should have been securely stored — unopened — until they could be officially opened at 7 a.m. on Election Day, a process known as precanvassing, Freed said.

The investigation also revealed that most, if not all, envelopes received in the election bureau “were opened as a matter of course.”

“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,” it said.

Interviews also revealed this issue occurred in the June 2 primary election — making it a known problem that was not corrected, it said.

“While the assigned investigators are continuing their work, including reviewing additional discarded materials, it is imperative that the issues identified be corrected,” Freed said.

Although the inquiry remains active, Freed said the initial findings had to be disclosed now because the Nov. 3 general is approaching and due to the “vital public importance of these issues.”

Freed said he and county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis would be happy to meet with Watchilla at a mutually convenient time to discuss the matter.

Investigators will preserve all documents collected in connection with the investigation in a shared goal to ensure that every properly cast ballot is counted, Freed said.

“Even though your staff has made some attempts to reconstitute certain of the improperly opened ballots, there is no guarantee that any of these votes will be counted in the general election,” he wrote.

County response: County election officials have asserted since before the primary that all mail-in ballots were kept unopened in a locked room until Election Day.

The key to that room was to be kept in another locked room with access controlled by Watchilla.

While the county already started sending ballots for military and civilians who are overseas, ballots for other county voters who requested them won’t be mailed until the first week of October, officials have said.

The issue disclosed by Freed had been discovered and reported by Watchilla last week, county Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said in a statement issued Thursday before Freed’s letter to Watchilla was released.

“County administration immediately reported her findings to the authorities,” Crocamo’s statement said, thanking law enforcement agencies for “quickly accepting our request and for their professional work in this matter.”

The county will continue working with authorities throughout their review, it said.

“Due to the fact that this is an ongoing investigation, it is not appropriate for the county to provide further comment at this time,” Crocamo wrote.

County Council members have expressed outrage and are seeking answers, as reported here.

County officials have projected the number of mail-in ballots could be in the 50,000 range for the Nov. 3 general.

Approximately 40,300 county voters cast their ballots by mail on June 2 — an option that was encouraged in the coronavirus pandemic and available with no excuse or reason required for the first time due to state legislation that had passed last year.

Rapid investigation: Federal authorities took the lead role of the investigation Monday at the request of Salavantis, who had been notified of the matter by the county administration on Sept. 17.

Freed said his office and the FBI Scranton Resident office have been working with the Pennsylvania State Police, conducting numerous interviews and recovering evidence. He said county election officials have been cooperative.

In his initial findings letter to Watchilla, Freed said the seven ballots for Trump were not in envelopes, although one may potentially be tied to a specific voter because it was “identified to an envelope that was recovered.”

As a result, it appears three of the nine ballots can be tied to specific voters because the two resealed by elections staff also appeared to be in the appropriate envelopes.

The other six were “simply removed and discarded” and cannot be linked to specific voters at this time.

In addition to discarded military ballots and envelopes, investigators recovered four empty absentee ballot envelopes with barcodes that appeared to be official.

Two of these envelopes had completed attestations and signatures on the reverse side. One envelope had a handwritten return address but was blank on the reverse side. The fourth contained basic location information and the words “affirmation enclosed” on the reverse side.