Fact check: Inaccurate details about ‘discarded’ military ballots found in Pennsylvania

On Sept. 24, a federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania announced an inquiry into a small number of military ballots that had been allegedly been “discarded,” some of which were cast for President Donald Trump. Posts on social media and Trump himself have referred to this incident inaccurately. This check aims to provide context and clarification on this matter, which is still under investigation.

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A post shared over 700 times on Facebook  here  reads: “The FBI just released a statement that multiple military mail-in ballots were found thrown away in a ditch in Pennsylvania!!!!  ALL of them were for President Trump. This is true election interference and Democrats are okay with it!!!”. Other posts are visible here ,    here  

Trump has also referred to this incident while trying to reinforce his narrative that mail-in voting will increase voter fraud ( here ). Mail-in voting has been tried and tested and found to be secure year after year. During the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, he said: “Hey, they found ballots in a wastepaper basket three days ago, and they all had the name military ballots. There were military. They all had the name Trump on them.” ( )   

In a highly unusual public statement, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, David Freed, said his office and the FBI were probing incidents that occurred in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania ( here ) regarding nine recovered military ballots that had been “improperly opened” by elections staff and “discarded.” 

David Freed’s letter visible  here  , said investigators recovered “a number of documents relating to military ballots that had been improperly opened” by elections staff.  

Among these documents, there were nine ballots that were “discarded,” seven of which had been cast for Donald Trump. The specified candidate on the remaining two military ballots is unknown, as they were “previously recovered by elections staff, reinserted into what appeared to be their appropriate envelopes, and then resealed.”

Freed’s letter said “the majority of the recovered materials were found in an outside dumpster.”

In a statement shared with the media ( herehere ) the Luzerne County said that the ballots were “incorrectly discarded” into the office trash by a “temporary seasonal independent contractor”. The contractor, who had started working at the Elections Bureau on Sept 14, two days prior the incident was discovered, was removed from service. 

The U.S. Department of Justice initially issued a statement on Sept. 24 that said all nine ballots were cast for Trump ( here ), but later corrected this information in a revised statement that same day  here

Some former Justice Department officials criticized Freed’s statement, saying there was no legitimate reason to disclose that the ballots were marked for Trump.

“This is both bizarre and disturbing,” David Laufman, a former Justice Department official, said on Twitter  here . “U.S. Attorney’s Offices don’t issue reports on pending investigations — and certainly not reports so blatantly contrived to provide political ballast for a sitting President’s campaign narrative.” 

On Sept. 30, Secretary of State for Pennsylvania Kathy Boockvar addressed the incident during an online news conference reported on by the Washington Post, saying: “this was not intentional fraud.” “The investigation is still going on, but from the initial reports we’ve been given, this was a bad error,” she added ( here

This incident has previously been used in social media claims taking it out of context and attributing photographs to it  here  , echoing President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that widespread mail-in voting will lead to fraud ( here ). 

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


Partly false. Seven of the nine military ballots that had been found discarded in Pennsylvania had been cast for Trump (other two ballots unknown). The FBI and Pennsylvania authorities are investigating the incident.

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