The Justice Department will allow prosecutors to make public announcements and take overt investigative steps when it comes to election fraud cases in the days leading up to the presidential vote, breaking with longstanding tradition of not doing anything that could be seen as affecting the outcome.
The policy exception was made during the summer and announced in an email sent to U.S. attorneys last week.
“This email was simply part of that ongoing process of providing routine guidance regarding election-related matters,” said department spokesman Matt Lloyd. “No political appointee had any role in directing, preparing or sending this email.”
The exception is directed at special circumstances when federal personnel, such as postal carriers or military personnel, transport ballots, according to the department.
“In that circumstance, corruption by federal personnel is already an interference in the state and local election process, and necessarily requires a federal overt remedy because it occurs outside most state and federal jurisdiction,” the department said in a statement.
The policy shift was first reported by ProPublica.
The change comes, however, as President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr make unsubstantiated claims that there could be massive voter fraud this year because of the widespread use of mail-in ballots.
Trump appears to be laying the groundwork to challenge election results if he loses on the basis that there was fraud. Announcements before the election about ballot interference, even if unintentional or minor, could help Trump and his allies build a narrative of large-scale fraud.
Department prosecutors have operated under a tradition of not announcing charges or taking public investigative steps that could be seen as benefiting a particular candidate or affecting votes 60 days before an election.
Some U.S. attorneys have already started making announcements in cases involving ballots.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey announced on Wednesday that a Postal Service carrier had been arrested on charges of discarding mail, including 99 mail-in ballots that were supposed to be sent to voters.
Federal prosecutors in a Pennsylvania county announced last month they were investigating “potential issues” with a handful of mail-in ballots that were thrown away, including several cast for Trump. County officials later said the ballots had been discarded by mistake.
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