The nine military mail-in ballots were found in a dumpster in Luzerne County, as were four absentee ballot envelopes that were empty, federal officials said.
County officials began sending out absentee ballots to military members and overseas voters on Aug. 25, the county said in a new statement on Friday.
Luzerne County manager David Pedri’s office said the county’s elections bureau historically hires contractors to help with various tasks in the months leading up to an election, and this year was no exception.
One of the contractors, who began work on Sept. 14, was tasked with sorting mail received by the bureau.
Two days later, “it was discovered by Luzerne County Elections Director Shelby Watchilla, that this contractor incorrectly discarded into the office trash [absentee] ballots,” the statement said.
“Ms. Watchilla immediately began an internal inquiry and informed her direct supervisor.”
The contractor was removed from service and told not to return.
After an internal inquiry was completed, Watchilla contacted the county’s office of law, which informed her that the matter needed to be reported to the proper authorities. The county district attorney’s office was soon contacted for investigation and assistance.
All garbage from the bureau from Sept. 14 to Sept. 16—the days the contractor worked—was placed in a dumpster and secured by county staff.
FBI agents later searched each bag of garbage from the entire building, with assistance from county officials and Pennsylvania State Police officers.
Any item of concern was taken into custody by the FBI.
Elections staff were not aware for whom the ballots were cast until U.S. Attorney David Freed’s office announced that seven of nine discarded ballots were cast for President Donald Trump.
Freed’s office initially said all nine were for Trump but later issued a revised statement downgrading that number.
When FBI agents return the ballots, the county will attempt to contact the voters involved and process the votes, according to the new statement. It encouraged people who have mailed their ballots to the county to check their status at the Pennsylvania Department of State website.
Because of what happened, county officials plan on providing “supplemental extensive training” to both full-time staff members and contractors.
In addition, a security camera in the bureau will help officials “actively monitor and ensure that all staff are strictly adhering to proper procedures and protocols,” the county said.
Mail-in ballots will start being sent to the general public in Luzerne County on Oct. 5.
The county’s announcement came after Freed directed Watchilla to fix the issue that the federal investigation uncovered.
“Our interviews further revealed that this issue was a problem in the primary election—therefore a known issue—and that the problem has not been corrected,” he said. “While the assigned investigators are continuing their work including reviewing additional discarded materials, it is imperative that the issues identified be corrected.”
The investigation into what happened is ongoing, according to federal officials.