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Fact check: Photos of electoral mail disposed in California show empty envelopes from 2018, not 2020 mail-in-ballots

Thousands of users on social media are sharing photographs that allegedly show thousands of mail-in-ballots being disposed of in Sonoma County, California. This is false: the photos show old empty electoral envelopes from 2018 that were recently disposed, in accordance with California’s electoral law.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

Examples of the posts are visible  here ,  here , here and  here

The claim feeds into a narrative echoed by President Donald Trump that mail-in voting, which is expected to nearly double due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will increase voter fraud. Some posts include comments like: “As always draw your own conclusions as to how corrupt or not this process will be” and “This election is already rigged by the left. Yes… These are BALLOTS”.

While the images are authentic and recent, they have been mislabeled. Sonoma County clarified this on Facebook  here . “These pictures are of old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election that were disposed of as allowed by law,” the post reads.  

The county also noted the ballots for the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election “haven’t even been mailed out yet.”  In California, mail-in-ballots shall be sent no later than Oct. 5 ( here ),  though individual counties may disperse them earlier ( here ).  

Deva Marie Proto, county clerk-recorder-assessor-registrar of voters for the Sonoma County, confirmed to Reuters via email that the county will send the ballots on Oct. 5th.

Regarding the photographs in the claim, Proto said “the old election materials were disposed of using the same process of recycling as in the past for previous elections.” According to the California Elections Code visible here bit.ly/2SmAWVL “we shall keep the materials from a federal/state election for 22 months, before recycling,” she said.  

The photographs in these claims were also shared on Twitter by Elijah Schaffer, a reporter for Blaze TV ( here ). The tweet ( here  ) is no longer available and was removed by Twitter.  Twitter spokeswoman Lauren Alexander told Reuters via email that “this Tweet and related Tweets have been actioned under our civic integrity policy.”   

This policy  here  targets  “misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process” such as “disputed claims that could undermine faith in the process itself, such as unverified information about election rigging, ballot tampering, vote tallying, or certification of election results.” 

PENNSYLVANIA

Some iterations ( here , herehere   ) also allege that ballots in these photos were disposed of in Pennsylvania and Texas.  

Reuters found no evidence to support the reference that these images portray an incident from 2020 in Texas or Pennsylvania. Reuters found no news reports on disposed ballots out of Texas.

Some posts mentioning Pennsylvania and Texas feature photos from the California incident above or another photograph from a 2018 incident in New Jersey to illustrate their claim ( bit.ly/2GoIjJd ) . As reported by the Courier Journal at the time  here , the image shows at least 8 boxes full of mail that were “dumped” by a U.S. Postal Service worker in Pennsauken, New Jersey, who later resigned.  

No news reports from this New Jersey 2018 incident mention it being electoral mail ( herehere ,  here )   

The reference to Pennsylvania most likely refers to a small number of military ballots cast for President Donald Trump in 2020 that had been allegedly “discarded” in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania ( here ).  

These ballots were few and Reuters found no photographs from this incident. According to U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, David Freed, the recovered nine military ballots had been “improperly opened” by elections staff and “discarded.” Seven out of the nine ballots were purportedly cast for Trump. “The majority of the recovered materials were found in an outside dumpster,” Freed said.

As reported by Buzzfeed  here , county officials explained that the ballots were “incorrectly discarded” into the trash by “a temporary seasonal independent contractor”. The worker, according to Buzzfeed, has been dismissed.   

Trump has often asserted, without evidence, that widespread mail-in voting will lead to fraud ( here ) .  

Reuters has previously debunked claims linking the use of mail-in ballots to voter fraud  herehere , and  here    

VERDICT

False. According to Sonoma County, the photographs show disposed empty envelopes from the November 2018 election. Nine military ballots were allegedly discarded in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania in 2020. Some posts misleadingly feature a mislabeled photo of a non-electoral mail incident in New Jersey in 2018.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts    here   .   

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