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Debunked: Viral photographs do not show a thousand mail-in ballots in California dumpster

Images from a viral tweet posted by Elijah Schaffer on September 25, 2020 who claimed that they were mail-in ballots thrown in a dumpster in California.
Images from a viral tweet posted by Elijah Schaffer on September 25, 2020 who claimed that they were mail-in ballots thrown in a dumpster in California.
4 min


The overlap between the 2020 American presidential elections and the unrelenting Covid-19 pandemic means that more Americans are expected to vote by mail than ever before. However, users on social media are casting doubt on the integrity of voting by mail by posting images of what they claim to be mail-in ballots thrown in dumpsters or abandoned on the side of the road. States such as California, New Jersey and Vermont began sending out ballots to all registered/eligible voters in mid-September. 

On September 25, Elijah Schaffer, host and reporter at the convervative American media BlazeTV, posted in a viral tweet that had more than 2,700 shares and 4,000 likes images of what looked like blue ballots in a trash bin. He claimed that these “original photos sent to him” showed more than a thousand mail-in ballots in a dumpster in Sonoma County, located in Northern California. 

Screenshot of Elijah Schaffer's Twitter post on September 25 claiming that these images are of mail-in ballots trashed in California.

Screenshot of the first picture in Elijah Schaffer's Twitter post on September 25, 2020, supposedly of binned mail-in ballots.

However, this claim was debunked and the images explained in a tweet by the County of Sonoma that same day. The photos, the county revealed, were not of mail ballots in the rubbish, but of old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election in recycling bins, disposed of as allowed by law.

Election Integrity Partnership, a research coalition that detects and mitigates attempts at voter suppression, warned in a tweet posted on September 25, 2020 that “images like these were being used to mislead people about the integrity of the election”. They also encouraged users to exercise caution when sharing images with unknown sources.

Twitter has since deleted the original tweet.

President Donald Trump has frequently warned of what he calls "tremendous potential for voter fraud,” despite studies showing that voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States. In May, Twitter labeled two tweets from Trump “potentially misleading” because they included false statements about mail-in voting.

Other photos of alleged “voter fraud” have surfaced on social media, including this photo of mail cartons strewn on the side of the road. However, a quick Google reverse image search reveals that the photo dates to 2018, when it was featured in news reports about a US Postal Service worker who resigned and abandoned the mail on a road in New Jersey. Similarly, another image circulating online – a news report of a postal worker dumping post into the rubbish – was in fact taken from a 2014 news broadcast by ABC. The worker was throwing away post that was supposed to be delivered, and was suspended without pay and with possible criminal charges.

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