(CNN)Local officials in Pennsylvania on Friday provided more information about nine potentially mishandled ballots in Luzerne County, which the White House repeatedly cited to attack mail-in voting and question the integrity of November’s election.
In a statement, county officials said the issue regarding nine military ballots was caused by a “temporary seasonal independent contractor” who “incorrectly discarded (the ballots) into the office trash” within their first three days of work helping the elections office. On the third day, Luzerne County Elections Director Shelby Watchilla realized what had happened and opened an investigation, and the contractor “was removed from service and informed not to return.” The officials called this an “error” and said the fact that it was quickly noticed and investigated proves that “the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works.”The county also said it learned that seven of the ballots had been cast for President Donald Trump from the Justice Department’s unusual news release on Thursday. Election officials typically go to extraordinary lengths to maintain ballot secrecy, and election experts told CNN Thursday they were baffled by the Justice Department’s decision to disclose this information. Additionally, the Justice Department typically does not comment about ongoing investigations, though there are rules allowing it to when there is a public interest at stake, like election integrity.People briefed on the matter said federal investigators are treating the incident as one that resulted from a poorly designed process and staff not properly trained, not an indication of intentional fraud.Read MoreDavid Becker, a former Justice Department lawyer who handled voting rights cases and now runs the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation, said these new details reinforced his view that the incident is being politicized.”After investigating for only 3 days, apparently finding no crime, and before the military voters were notified, the DOJ violates ballot secrecy, and the AG personally briefs the president on this fixable mistake, and shortly after, the president uses it in his campaign,” Becker tweeted on Friday, in response to reports about Attorney General William Barr’s involvement.While any missing ballots can cause a problem, the issue appears to be miniscule, based on statements from investigators. More than 6.1 million Pennsylvanians voted in the 2016 election.Trump has repeatedly referenced the ballots in question to renew his long standing, baseless assertion that mail-in voting is prone to widespread fraud. In remarks in Atlanta, Georgia on Friday, Trump once again tried to undermine confidence in mail-in voting, telling supporters, “Democrats are playing games, you see that, they, you see they found ballots in a wastepaper basket, they found ballots dumped in a stream.”In an interview earlier on Thursday morning, before the Justice Department announcement, Trump seized on the Pennsylvania situation to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election. It wasn’t clear at the time what he was referring to, and there had been local reports of an inquiry, but his comments generally align with the information released by the Justice Department on Thursday afternoon.