Officials in Sonoma County, California, said photos circulating on social media show “old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election” being recycled — not “1,000+ mail-in ballots found in a dumpster,” as social media posts falsely claim.
An erroneous story about a trove of mail-in ballots being “found” in a California dumpster has spread online in recent days, when, in fact, the images cited actually show one California county’s routine recycling of old election materials.
The falsehood swirled on Twitter and Facebook, as well as on unreliable blogs, earning thousands of shares.
Among those spreading the false suggestion, a reporter for the conservative outlet TheBlaze TV shared a tweet — later removed by Twitter — that said “1,000+ mail-in-ballots found in a dumpster in California.” The Sept. 25 post, which deemed the supposed information “SHOCKING,” said the purported ballots were found in “the Republic Services of Sonoma County central landfill.”
“These are original photos sent to me,” the tweet concluded. “Big if true.”
But the photos included in his tweet actually show empty envelopes from the November 2018 election, according to county officials.
“Please be aware: Someone posted pictures on the web showing empty Vote-by-Mail envelopes from Sonoma County in recycling bins. The pictures are of old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election that were disposed of as allowed by law,” the county wrote on its verified Facebook page. “But some on the web are claiming its evidence of ballots for the Nov. 3 election ‘being dumped’ in California. This is not true. Those ballots haven’t even been mailed out yet.”
Deva Marie Proto, the registrar of voters in Sonoma County, told us in a phone interview that such election materials from past federal and state elections are kept for 22 months, per California’s Elections Code.
Proto said the county sent the old envelopes — along with some old, unused ballots and election guides — to the landfill to be recycled the week of Sept. 21. It appeared that someone entered the landfill after county workers and took the photos, she said.
As for the coming 2020 election, California requires that county elections officials send mail-in ballots to registered voters by Oct. 5, and Proto said her county will be sending mail-in ballots on that day.
This year, California is one of nine states “mailing ballots to all eligible voters, no request needed” for the November election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Montana also gives counties the option to do so. The District of Columbia will also mail ballots to all registered voters, according to the district’s Board of Elections.
The false claim appeared in other posts on Facebook and on blogs such as the Gateway Pundit. The latter updated its story but still cast the photos in a suspicious light — claiming that “the ballots in the trash are still sealed.”
Proto said the county uses a machine that slices the top and sides of the envelopes, then opens them so that workers can take the ballot out for counting. There aren’t “tears or rips,” she said, that one might expect if the envelopes were to be manually opened by workers.
Also, the mail-in ballot envelopes for the 2020 election will feature some differences from the old ones seen in the photos, Proto said. For example, the new envelopes will not feature the red lines seen on the old ones — and postage is included.
Many false and unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballots have been floated in advance of the election, including by President Donald Trump.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.
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“Absentee and Mail Voting Policies in Effect for the 2020 Election.” National Conference of State Legislatures. Updated 24 Sep 2020.
“Assembly Bill No. 860, An act to amend Sections 3019.7, 3020, and 15101 of, and to add Sections 3000.5 and 3016.7 to, the Elections Code, relating to elections, and declaring the urgency thereof, to take effect immediately.” California State Assembly. (as signed into law 18 Jun 2020)
County of Sonoma (@CountyofSonoma). “Please be aware: Someone posted pictures on the web showing empty Vote-by-Mail envelopes from Sonoma County in recycling bins. The pictures are of old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election that were disposed of as allowed by law. But some on the web are claiming its evidence of ballots for the Nov. 3 election “being dumped” in California. This is not true. Those ballots haven’t even been mailed out yet. Please help us spread the word. Thank you.” Facebook. 26 Sep 2020.
“ELECTIONS CODE – ELEC | DIVISION 17. RETENTION AND PRESERVATION OF ELECTION RECORDS [17000 – 17506].” California Legislative Information. Accessed 28 Sep 2020.
Proto, Deva Marie. Registrar of voters, Sonoma County. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 28 Sep 2020.