By Associated Press
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The news release from a U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania was provocative: Nine mailed-in military ballots had been “discarded” by the local election office in a swing county of one of the most important presidential battleground states.
All of them were marked for President Donald Trump, the news release said. Then came another news release with key details changed but still little explanation of what had happened and whether investigators believed a criminal investigation was warranted. It was eventually further clarified that seven of the votes were marked for Trump.
Despite the information vacuum, the White House press secretary told reporters “ballots for the president” had been “cast aside.” The Trump campaign’s rapid-response arm pushed out the release from Trump’s own Justice Department under the headline “Democrats are trying to steal the election” — ignoring the fact that the local government, Luzerne County, is controlled by Republicans.
Conservative voices used the news release as rocket fuel to amplify the investigation on social media.
The number of public Facebook and Instagram posts mentioning the discarded ballots quickly skyrocketed, receiving nearly 900,000 interactions — likes or comments — in less than 24 hours, according to CrowdTangle.
Thursday’s kerfuffle and accompanying internet outrage over a handful of ballots is likely a taste of what’s to come in the month left before the presidential election, which is being held amid a global pandemic that has triggered a wave of absentee-ballot requests as Trump continues to launch unsubstantiated attacks on mail voting.
It was Trump, after being briefed on the case by Attorney General William Barr, who first revealed publicly that the discarded ballots had been cast for him. He did so in an interview earlier Thursday with Fox News Radio in which he used the investigation to further sow doubt about mail-in voting. The radio interview was hours before the U.S. attorney’s office in Pennsylvania issued its news release about the probe to reporters.
Trump appeared to have tipped the inquiry in a tweet Friday morning, the Wall Street Journal noted . “There is fraud being found all over the place,” his tweet said in part, referencing “the Trump ballots in Pennsylvania that were thrown in the garbage.”
Twitter labeled the tweet, inviting users of the platform to “[l]earn how voting by mail is safe and secure,” linking to posts that cite experts and data to the effect that voting by mail is secure.
“If past is prologue, we will see more,” said Wendy Weiser, an elections expert and director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We are in an unprecedented situation where a sitting president of the United States and a candidate for re-election is and has long been actively seeking to undermine the election and discredit it.”
Weiser said it was important that officials provide detailed information about any voting issues that arise. For instance, officials with the U.S. Postal Service said this week they are investigating a report that an unknown number of ballots were among other mail found in a ditch near a highway intersection in Wisconsin, another presidential battleground.
Officials have so far released little information in that case, including whether the ballots were blank and on their way to voters or if they had been completed and were being returned to the local election office.
Experts say the lack of information in these cases opens the door to speculation and conspiracy theories, even as FBI Director Christopher Wray testified under oath just a day before that coordinated vote fraud, by mail or otherwise, has not been seen, now or in the past.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows shot back with the ad hominem attack that Wray, handpicked in 2017 by Trump to lead the FBI, could not even be trusted to find an email within his own agency.