Five days before the citizens of Paterson, N.J., selected new members of their city council in May, a postal employee in a neighboring town spotted something suspicious in a local post office: 347 mail-in ballots, bundled together.

The discovery kicked off weeks of tumult in New Jersey’s third-largest city, a densely populated and diverse community. Four men, including a city councilman, have been charged with fraud. Amid the controversy, the county election board disqualified 19 percent of ballots cast in the race.

The episode probably would have remained a local dust-up but for the sudden interest of President Trump, who has spent the past several months attacking voting by mail as a practice he says is susceptible to massive fraud. In recent weeks, he has seized on the situation in Paterson as the prime exhibit in the case he is making about why the November election will be “rigged,” as he has repeatedly put it.

In a tweet Sunday afternoon in which he misspelled the name of the city, he wrote, “The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-In Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it. So much time is taken talking about foreign influence, but the same people won’t even discuss Mail-In election corruption. Look at Patterson, N.J. 20% of vote was corrupted!”

Earlier this month, he told reporters that they should look into Paterson, “where massive percentages of the vote was a fraud.”

White House officials said the president has railed privately about the New Jersey city’s election to his advisers. And conservative groups have launched their own efforts to spotlight the problems in Paterson, including Judicial Watch and the Honest Elections Project, which is supported by attorney Leonard Leo, a close Trump ally.

But those involved in the Paterson case said the president is vastly oversimplifying what took place in a local election, using it to serve his own political purposes and overstating the extent to which problems in their city serve as some kind of national cautionary tale.

“He’s not telling the entire truth,” said Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, a political rival of those who were charged and a Democrat who has held the nonpartisan office since 2018. “But then again, he’s Donald Trump.”

In fact, they say the alleged scheme in Paterson was a complicated one made possible by a series of unique circumstances that would be difficult to reproduce in other cities, much less on a national scale.

They also challenged Trump’s claim that all of the 3,274 ballots thrown out by election officials were potentially fraudulent — local leaders said many were rejected because of what they see as minor errors on the part of voters.

And while the problems with the May vote illustrate what could go wrong with mail ballots, they also show how attempts at fraud are caught — in this case, the bundles of ballots were spotted by alert postal workers.

“We’re not saying vote-by-mail is inherently wrong or problematic,” said William McKoy, a 20-year incumbent of the Paterson City Council, who, according to final vote tallies, was defeated in May by former school board member Alex Mendez, who has been implicated in the alleged scheme.

Added McKoy’s lawyer, Scott Salmon, “This is a case study in what could go wrong. But we know from experience and from other towns, the chances of everything going this wrong are so slim that they just don’t happen anywhere else.”

Mendez, who has been barred by court order from taking office, has been charged with six felonies, including election fraud, unauthorized possession of ballots and tampering with public records, by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

He denies all wrongdoing, his lawyer said.

Three other men have also been charged with felonies, including a council member and the brother of a second council member. All deny wrongdoing.

“The president’s spin on mail-in voting is absolutely, 100 percent inaccurate and wrong,” said Gregg Paster, a lawyer representing Mendez.

Paster noted that Trump has talked repeatedly about Paterson, a Democratic city with large Latino and Muslim populations, but has said nothing about a Republican congressman from Kansas charged earlier this month with voter fraud and remained silent in 2018 about a Republican ballot-harvesting scheme in North Carolina that resulted in the indictment of a longtime state GOP operative.

Asked about the Kansas case on July 16, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she had not heard of the charges nor discussed them with the president. She then pivoted to talk about Trump’s “very real concerns about voter fraud” — citing the New Jersey episode.

A White House spokesman referred questions to Trump’s campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Allegations of stolen ballots

New Jersey has offered a vote-by-mail option for years, but in March, as the novel coronavirus swept through the state, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) declared upcoming elections would be the first to be conducted entirely by mail.

Under new rules, election officials mailed a ballot to every active registered voter. Election experts say such programs can drive up participation but should be accompanied by rigorous efforts to make sure that voting rolls are accurate and up to date.

One of the nation’s most densely populated cities, Paterson is home to many large apartment buildings where residents share communal mail rooms. Photographs from local media outlets included in a lawsuit filed by McKoy show that in some buildings, postal workers failed to deliver ballots properly to individual mailboxes, instead leaving them unattended in a stack in the mail room.

Martha Johnson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, said that the agency’s Office of Inspector General was made aware of “few blank absentee ballots” discovered in the lobby of one Paterson apartment building, investigated and took “appropriate action.”

“The U.S. Mail remains a secure, efficient and effective means for citizens and campaigns to participate in the electoral process,” she said.

Under New Jersey law, people who vote absentee are supposed to mail or drop off their own ballots or designate someone else to do it for them — but no one is allowed to deliver more than three ballots during a single election.

But amid the raging virus, many voters were fearful about leaving home and all too happy to have friends, neighbors or volunteer campaign workers offer to take their completed ballots out to a mailbox, Paster said.

In addition, many voters, particularly older residents and immigrants who are not fluent English speakers, were unfamiliar with the rules for filling out mail-in ballots, he said.

The various problems combined to create the “perfect storm” of conditions for possible fraud, Salmon said.

So far, the state attorney general’s office has offered few details about the specific allegations against the four men who have been charged. A spokesman for the office declined to comment.

He contends that some loose ballots were stolen from apartment mailrooms. Then, he alleges, campaign workers filled out and cast the ballots for their preferred candidates, affixing to the blank ballots images of signatures they had gathered and saved from past petition drives.

McKoy’s complaint outlines other problems with the vote, as well. It alleges that some voters never received a ballot and that the post office failed to deliver some completed ballots on time, and it cites videos posted to social media showing a campaign worker filling out a ballot for a voter and another worker flipping through a stack of ballots.

The bundle of ballots spotted five days before the election by a postal worker was one of several groups of ballots found at post offices in the days just before the election, according to the attorney general’s office.

A statement from the attorney general’s office said that the investigation that led to criminal charges began with the tip from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and that a number of the charges related “to the improper collection of mail-in ballots.”

If McKoy’s allegations are true, the scheme he outlined would represent a sophisticated effort to manufacture illegal votes.

Still, even McKoy said he believes such an endeavor would only be possible on a small scale, such as his city council race against Mendez, in which just 4,565 votes in total were cast.

It would require operatives with databases of voter signatures and tightknit political machines willing to keep quiet about the fraud — not to mention access to loose ballots.

Such an effort could not be replicated, Salmon said, in places where fewer voters lived in communities with communal mail rooms — or if the post office properly delivered ballots in the first place.

“What happened in Paterson doesn’t happen everywhere else. That’s why it should get attention,” Salmon said, “Because it’s so rare.”

Paster, speaking on behalf of Mendez, denied the claims in McKoy’s suit. He said Mendez believes he will be vindicated.

While Paster said Mendez did not break any rules, he said it was possible that some campaign workers in the city helped voters fill out their ballots or mailed more than three ballots because of the unusual circumstances of the pandemic election.

“The ones that were sick couldn’t go out, and the ones who weren’t were petrified,” he said. “There was not a great deal of concern by voters about who was taking their ballots out to the mail.”

The lawyer alleged that those who have been charged are being politically targeted, noting that they are all opponents of the current mayor, including Mendez, who unsuccessfully ran against him in 2018.

With two seats on the nine-member council now contested and vacant, the mayor has maintained a majority bloc on the body. Sayegh called those accusations “absolutely absurd.” The attorney general’s office declined to comment.

Rejected ballots

One thing both sides agree on: Not all of the 19 percent of ballots tossed by the Passaic County Board of Elections were potentially fraudulent.

After the discovery of the bundle of ballots at the post office, elections officials began applying extra scrutiny to mail-in votes — an approach that led to a number of ballots being tossed for minor voter errors, according to people on both sides of the contested election.

Board officials did not respond to requests for comment.

To properly return a ballot in New Jersey, voters must insert it into a specially provided envelope, which they must sign with their correct address. They must then place that envelope into a second envelope. If they have allowed someone else to mail their ballot, the approved “bearer” must fill out a special certification form. Candidates are not allowed to serve as bearers.

Ballots can be rejected if voters miss any steps or if their signatures do not appear to match ones kept on file by the Board of Elections, which can compare signatures to decades-old documents.

According to information released by the board, nearly 1,400 out of the 3,274 ballots thrown out were rejected because the board assessed that a voter’s signature did not match one held on file. An additional roughly 900 votes found at post offices were disqualified because the portion of the ballot for designating a “bearer” was improperly completed.

Benjie Wimberly, a Democratic New Jersey assemblyman who represents the area, said he dropped off his vote, along with that of his wife and two sons, at the main post office in Paterson. Later, he learned from local media reports that his and his family’s ballots were among the 19 percent that had been discarded. According to the Board of Elections, they were rejected for having an “incomplete bearer portion.”

“I was furious,” Wimberly said. “This was a complete disaster for Paterson.”

Sayegh, who is an ally of Mc­Koy, said there were clearly serious problems with the May vote. But he said that by citing the high percentage of disqualified ballots, Trump is overstating the extent of the potential fraud.

“Some of it was just errors,” he said of disqualified ballots.

The situation in Paterson is not unique. This year, tens of thousands of mail ballots have been discarded by election officials around the country, many because of errors completing the forms or problems verifying voter signatures.

Many jurisdictions that have had small rates of absentee voting in the past do not have clear protocols in place to verify mail ballots. For that reason, mail balloting is far more likely to exclude legitimate votes than it is to allow fraudulent ones to be cast, despite Trump’s assertions, election experts said.

“I’m much more concerned about the potential for disenfranchisement — especially inadvertent disenfranchisement — than I am about fraud,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine and a voting law expert.

Despite the problems in his city, Sayegh said he thinks vote-by-mail is “the way of the future.” He called on New Jersey and other states to do more to educate voters in advance of the November election on the proper way to fill out and submit a ballot, including that they should not allow other people to touch their ballots.

“It’s going to take a robust awareness campaign. We have to be better prepared,” he said. “Paterson was not.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.