Donald Trump's war on mail-in voting this week turned out to be all for naught after election workers in Pennsylvania admitted to an envelope mix-up that Trump had initially claimed was part of a broader fraud scheme.
On Thursday morning, Trump complained about the supposed mail-in voter fraud on Fox News radio, claiming that ballots cast for him had been recently found in the trash.
"They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can," he told host Brian Kilmeade. "They were Trump ballots. Eight ballots. In an office yesterday in a certain state. And they were. They had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can."
By Thursday afternoon, the Justice Department announced it had been conducting an investigation into nine "discarded" ballots since Monday, along with local officials. An initial statement claimed all nine of those ballots had been cast for Trump.
Later that same day, the department deleted that announcement and issued a second conflicting statement, claiming that only seven of the ballots had been cast for Trump and the other two were of unknown preference, as they had been recovered and resealed into their original envelopes.
The department did not explain the strange and sudden correction.
Election experts everywhere were stunned by the announcement.
Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and former Justice Department official, told the Washington Post that the move "was not an act of law enforcement, this was a campaign act."
"It's unprecedented for the DOJ to be offering up a press release with 'partial facts,'" Levitt told Politico in a separate interview. "And it is career-endingly improper to designate the candidate for whom the votes are cast."
University of California-Irvine election law professor Richard Hasen told the Post that the Justice Department should not be a "political tool."
"[T]his is a story that's going to be manipulated by (Trump) to say his votes are being thrown out," Hasen added.
As the Post noted, not long after the Justice Department's initial statement, the Trump campaign indeed claimed that "Democrats are trying to steal the election."
Trump's mail-in voting bogeyman has been a favorite talking point of his for some time.
On Wednesday, Trump said in a news conference that he intended to get rid of mail-in voting altogether, vaguely alluding to a theory of "mailmen" tampering with votes nationwide.
In the same conference Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, if he loses reelection in November.
"Well, we'll have to see what happens, you know that," he said. "I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster."
And, in a media briefing Thursday, Trump again incited his base to a feeding frenzy over a myth.
"We have to be very careful with the ballots," he said. "The ballots, that's a whole big scam. They found, I understand, eight ballots in a wastepaper basket in some location ... We want to make sure the election is honest and I'm not sure that it can be. I don't know that it can be with this whole situation, unsolicited ballots. They're unsolicited, millions being sent to everybody."
The same day, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump's plan to get rid of mail-in ballots, referencing reports of votes found "cast aside."
"I can confirm for you that Trump ballots, ballots for the president were found in Pennsylvania," she said.
In the end, the whole affair turned out to be nothing more than a tempest in a teapot.
U.S. Attorney David Freed said that the items, found in an outside dumpster, appeared to be have been military ballots mishandled by confused election workers.
While state election law dictates that ballots should be stored unopened until 7 a.m. on Election Day, it appeared that election workers had been opening many envelopes containing ballots against protocol.
Freed added that election workers told investigators that military, absentee, overseas, and mail-in ballot requests all arrive in nearly identical envelopes, so the mishandled ballots were opened out of the fear of missing a ballot request.
Despite Trump's fear-mongering about Democrats stealing the election, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro commended the efforts of local officials.
Asked by CNN host Pamela Brown Thursday if the public should be worried about mail-in voting fraud, Shapiro said: "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 (the situation) 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."
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, who is a Republican, similarly reassured the public that there was no need for concern.
"We are confident that it will be successfully resolved so it will not have an impact on the integrity of the election process," Salavantis said.
Trump's voter-tampering conspiracy theories have a ripple effect, however — one which ultimately affects candidates of both parties.
By making it harder to vote — opposing legislation simplifying voting during the pandemic, filing lawsuits against states setting up ballot boxes for drop-off ballots, complicating the voting process for ex-felons and college students, and slowing down mail delivery across the country — the GOP undermines the very process it claims to protect.
Case in point: Pennsylvania Republicans, including a spokesman for Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, have refused to eliminate a provision in state law requiring counties to discount mail-in ballots returned without secrecy envelopes.
This could result in 30 to 40,000 Pennsylvania ballots being thrown out this year. The 2016 election was decided in the state by 44,000 votes.
And FBI Director Christopher Wray effectively dismantled Trump's rhetoric Thursday, denying under oath the idea of a widespread anti-democratic voter fraud effort.
"Now, we have not seen, historically, any kind of coordinated national voter fraud effort in a major election, whether it's by mail or otherwise," he said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
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