This article has been updated.

Luzerne County, Pa., is Trump country. The president won the county by nearly 20 points four years ago and has returned multiple times since, holding rallies in the county seat of Wilkes-Barre in 2018 and at a manufacturing facility in the county in the past month.

It is not, in other words, the sort of place where you’d assume that Democratic operatives would launch an effort to subvert the 2020 election. Yet over the past 24 hours, that’s been the subtext to assertions made by the president, the White House and the Justice Department — a subtext which by now seems almost entirely false.

The apparent first mention of a problem with ballots cast by military voters in the county came from President Trump himself in a radio interview with Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade.

“These ballots are a horror show,” Trump said, continuing his long-standing — and false — claims about mail-in ballots. “They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can. They were Trump ballots — eight ballots in an office yesterday in — but in a certain state and they were — they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can.”

In part because the interview was not otherwise exceptional and in part because Trump often makes similar claims without evidence, this assertion didn’t attract much attention. (Trump is said to have learned about the incident from Attorney General William P. Barr, according to a Washington Post report.)

A few hours later, though, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany elevated the issue.

“I can confirm for you that Trump ballots, ballots for the president, were found in Pennsylvania,” McEnany said as part of her description of mail-in voting being “a system that’s subject to fraud.”

“I believe you should be getting more information on that shortly,” she continued. “Here, in the last 24 hours, they were found cast aside.”

More information was provided shortly — in the unusual form of a statement released by the Justice Department from the U.S. attorney in the region.

“At this point we can confirm that a small number of military ballots were discarded” by county election officials, it read. “Investigators have recovered nine ballots at this time. Some of those ballots can be attributed to specific voters and some cannot. All nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.”

In short order, Trump‘s reelection campaign seized on the report. Matt Wolking, the campaign’s deputy director of communications, tweeted that “100% of [the ballots] were cast for President Trump,” adding that “Democrats are trying to steal the election.”

He didn‘t note that there were only nine ballots under consideration or that the circumstances around their being discarded were unclear.

Soon after the initial Justice Department statement was released, it was corrected: No longer were 100 percent of the ballots cast for Trump.

“Of the nine ballots that were discarded and then recovered, 7 were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump,” the “revised statement” read. “Two of the discarded ballots had been resealed inside their appropriate envelopes by Luzerne elections staff prior to recovery by the FBI and the contents of those 2 ballots are unknown.”

Wolking later deleted his tweet.

“Our inquiry remains ongoing and we expect later today to share our up to date findings with officials in Luzerne County,” the Justice Department’s new statement concluded. “It is the vital duty of government to ensure that every properly cast vote is counted.”

Those updated findings were also made public, in the form of a letter published by the department. In the fifth of its six paragraphs, the U.S. attorney outlined what was understood to have happened.

“Our investigation has revealed that all or nearly all envelopes received in the elections office were opened as a matter of course,” it read. “It was explained to investigators the 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. 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.”

Ryan Godfrey, an elections official in Pennsylvania, noted that the state’s process for issuing military ballots is different from that for other voters. Pennsylvania sends out write-in ballots that can be sent and returned before the slate of candidates is finalized. Given that the state’s presidential candidate slate wasn’t finalized until the past week and the ballots were received in Luzerne County on Monday, it’s probable that these write-in ballots were what was at issue.

Here’s where things may get a bit ironic.

Because these ballots were returned in envelopes similar to absentee ballot requests, elections officials opened them. If the ballots weren’t then enclosed in another envelope that shielded the actual vote being cast, they may have been considered “naked ballots,” a term used to describe mail ballots returned without the voter’s intent being protected.

If that’s the case, which again isn’t clear, that meant that elections officials who were opening the envelopes to see what they contained may have had to discard the votes, given a recent ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.

The Associated Press reported on that decision, writing that the court’s extension of the period in which ballots could be returned was a win for Democrats.

“In wins for Republicans,” the report continued, the court “rejected requests to let voters who aren’t disabled give their mail-in ballot to someone else to deliver; to require counties to let voters fix disqualifying problems with their mail-in ballots, such as not signing their return envelope; and to require counties to count mailed-in ballots that arrive without a secrecy envelope.”

Emphasis added: Those are the naked ballots.

Lisa Deeley, a city commissioner in Philadelphia, sent a letter Monday urging the state legislature to abandon the legal requirement for a secrecy envelope that prompted the court’s decision. She warned that adhering to the court’s ruling could “cause electoral chaos” — a prediction that might have been rendered accurate even as the letter was being sent.

On Friday afternoon, Luzerne County Manager C. David Pedri released his own delineation of what happened.

According to Pedri, the county hired a temporary staffer, as it usually does before an election. On Sept. 14, that staffer “incorrectly discarded” ballots from military or overseas voters. After county staffers learned about the ballots being discarded, the county informed federal authorities, secured trash from the dumpster and fired the temporary employee. County staff, local law enforcement and the FBI sorted through the trash to find any missing ballots.

“While the actions of this individual has cast a concern, the above statement shows that the system of checks and balances set forth in Pennsylvania elections works,” Pedri wrote. “An error was made, a public servant discovered it and reported it to law enforcement at the local, State and Federal level who took over to ensure the integrity of the system in place.”

His report added another detail, too: “Luzerne County Elections staff were unaware for whom the ballots were cast until the disclosure via Press Release of the United States Attorney on September 24, 2020,” he wrote.

What’s most important to take away from this incident is that, even after multiple updates, we don’t yet know what happened. Despite Trump’s insinuation that something untoward occurred and his campaign’s direct claim that Democratic nefariousness was to blame, there is not yet any proof that anything improper happened, much less anything illegal.

What we have learned, in fact, isn’t that Democrats are trying to rig the election. It’s that the Trump administration — including the Justice Department — and the Trump campaign are willing to use sketchy allegations in an effort to undermine confidence in mail-in voting. That effort is itself part of an obvious move by the Trump campaign to delegitimize valid ballots out of concern that those ballots will tend to favor Trump’s opponent. That’s why rejecting “naked ballots” was a win for Trump’s team in the first place: It would probably lead to more votes for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden being thrown out in a pivotal swing state, precisely the outcome Trump’s party wanted.

That effort may have yielded the party the additional benefit of 24 hours spent in the now-familiar pattern of slathering a murky incident involving mail-in ballots with insinuations about wrongdoing — insinuations that later prove to be unfounded.

correction

The article originally indicated that Godfrey was no longer an elections official.