The Justice Department on Thursday released details about an investigation into nine discarded mailed-in ballots in Pennsylvania, an unusual step that stoked new fears that President Trump’s political appointees were using the levers of law enforcement to sow doubt about the election.
The U.S. attorney for central Pennsylvania, David J. Freed, announced in a statement that F.B.I. investigators were examining mail-in ballots from military members in Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania that had been “discarded.” Seven of the nine ballots were cast for Mr. Trump, Mr. Freed said.
In a letter to the Luzerne County Bureau of Elections released on Thursday evening, Mr. Freed said investigators found that the nine ballots had been “improperly opened by your elections staff.” Under Pennsylvania election law, no ballots can be opened until Election Day, even for processing.
Mr. Freed added that the investigation found that “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,” and had been opening envelopes.
Election experts said the announcement was highly irregular. Justice Department policy calls for keeping voter fraud investigations under wraps to avoid affecting the election outcome, and the experts said it was almost unheard-of for the department to provide an update on the case and disclose the name of the candidate for whom the ballots had been cast.
“The question of who voters voted for would be immaterial in any kind of tampering investigation, and it seems to be in there for political reasons, to bolster the president’s arguments that the election is being rigged against him,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine.