The Citizens’ Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Feb. 11—Former Luzerne County Deputy Election Director Dino Ninotti says honest mistakes led a temporary worker in the election bureau to open and discard nine military ballots last September.
The incident made headlines nationwide and led to a federal investigation that concluded last month with the determination that no criminal wrongdoing was involved.
Ninotti’s remarks this week mark the first time a county official spoke in detail about the incident for publication.
Sept. 16, 2020 was Ninotti’s third day on the job. He said he led training classes for poll workers that day at the county emergency management agency.
When Ninotti returned to the election bureau, in the Penn Place building in Wilkes-Barre, then-county election director Shelby Watchilla told him military ballots had been found in a wastebasket, he said.
Ninotti, who served in the Army National Guard, said his first instinct was to dig through the bureau’s garbage to find any other discarded ballots.
Military voters “should not have to worry about this; they have other things to worry about,” he said.
Watchilla told him she had already searched the garbage, including a dumpster outside which investigators continued to dig through, he said.
Here is how the ballots wound up in the garbage, according to Ninotti:
A seasonal worker, who had worked for the election bureau during the June 2 primary and previous elections, was assigned to sort the mail that week.
A bureau staff member told the seasonal worker to throw out junk mail including what the bureau referred to as “love letters,” such as letters with obscene language regarding the election process.
The worker opened envelopes that contained military ballots, but mistakenly thought the ballots were not valid and discarded them, Ninotti said.
That stemmed from a series of misunderstandings, he said.
First, standard mail-in ballots had not yet been sent to county voters who requested them.
The worker apparently did not realize that military ballots are sent out earlier than standard mail-in ballots, to allow time for voters to return them from overseas, Ninotti said.
Therefore, the worker thought the county had not yet sent any ballots to voters, so any ballots received could not be legitimate, Ninotti said.
Also, military ballots do not look like standard mail-in ballots, and it is common for voters to forget to attach a barcoded sticker to the return envelope, Ninotti said.
In those cases, an envelope that contains a military ballot looks like any other piece of mail, Ninotti said.
Key procedural question
That explains a key reference in a letter then-U.S. Attorney David Freed sent to Watchilla on Sept. 24, the day he announced his office was investigating the incident.
The investigation revealed that nearly all envelopes the bureau received were opened as a matter of course, since staff members told investigators that envelopes containing military ballots looked similar to envelopes that contained ballot request forms, Freed wrote.
Ninotti agreed that military ballots returned without a barcode are hard to distinguish from other mail, which resulted in staff members opening envelopes that contained ballots.
In that case, protocol called for ballot envelopes to be resealed and initialed by anyone who handled or viewed the ballot, Ninotti said.
He said he is not sure why that did not happen last September.
Ninotti said the worker who discarded the ballots told him he made a mistake and believed the ballots were not valid. He apologized profusely, Ninotti said.
The worker was terminated from both the election bureau and serving as a poll worker, he said.
Ninotti declined to provide the name of the worker who discarded the ballots, since investigators cleared him of wrongdoing.
Last October, Luzerne County denied a Right-to-Know request from The Citizens’ Voice that requested the worker’s name. The county cited the federal investigation, which was then active.
Ninotti resigned last month to take a job in Maryland. He said the controversy surrounding the election bureau did not cause him to leave, noting his new job offers a great opportunity.
Watchilla and county Manager David Pedri did not return messages left Wednesday evening
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