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PolitiFact VA: Trump Spokesperson Falsely Claims Ballots Counted in Secret

Woman watching voters
A poll worker watches on as Virginians cast their ballots. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Speaker: Tim Murtaugh
Statement: “In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh...682,000 ballots were counted in secret, away from poll watchers who were entitled by law to have access to that count.”
Date: Nov. 16
Setting: Radio interview

Tim Murtaugh, the director of communications for President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, wrongly told a Richmond radio audience that critical Pennsylvania ballots that helped tip the election to Democrat Joe Biden were secretly counted.

During a Nov. 16 interview on WRVA, Murtaugh repeated a falsehood often made by Trump that has been contradicted by the president’s own campaign lawyers in court.

Murtaugh said, “In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, more than 600,000, almost 700,000, really, 682,000 ballots, were counted in secret, away from our poll watchers who are entitled by law to have access to that count.”

Murtaugh has deep Richmond connections, having worked in the city as television reporter and as a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore and several state GOP campaigns. He’s been a regular guest this year on conservative Virginia radio shows, giving updates on Trump’s campaign.

The 682,000 ballots Murtaugh mentions are roughly equivalent to the number of mail-in ballots cast in Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties, home to the two cities in his statement. Biden won the counties by a combined 618,000 votes, leading to his 81,000-vote victory over Trump in Pennsylvania.

Despite Trump and Murtaugh’s claims of secrecy, a lawyer for the president admitted in court on Nov. 5 that the campaign always had a “ non-zero number” of observers at the mail-in ballot count. 

The Trump campaign filed a federal lawsuit on Nov. 9 asking that mail-in ballots from the two counties be tossed out because campaign representatives were denied rights to watch them counted. The campaign withdrew that request in an amended version of the suit that was filed on Nov. 15 - the day before Murtaugh’s WRVA interview. A federal judge dismissed the amended suit on Nov. 21

When we asked Murtaugh on Nov. 20 for evidence that the ballots had been secretly counted, he broadly referred us to the campaign’s legal filings. The campaign filed a state lawsuit contesting a 15-foot barrier maintained in Philadelphia between ballot counters and election observers, saying the distance made it difficult to closely watch the proceedings. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the complaint on Nov. 17.

Ellen Lyon, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, told PolitiFact National that Pennsylvania has "had a free, fair and secure election" with "the highest degree of transparency," including livestreams of the process in Philadelphia and other counties.

"In all counties, all parties have canvass observers throughout the process," Lyon said, pointing to the commonwealth’s guidelines for observers. "Any insinuation otherwise is a lie."

Our ruling

Murtaugh said, “In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh...682,000 ballots were counted in secret, away from poll watchers who were entitled by law to have access to that count.”

Murtaugh’s statement refers to mail-in ballots cast in the two cities. A Trump lawyer has admitted in court that the campaign always had observers present while those votes were being counted in Philadelphia. A Pennsylvania election official says both political parties were allowed to watch the count “in all counties;” neither Murtaugh nor the campaign have offered evidence to dispute that. And the Trump campaign - prior to Murtaugh’s statement - removed claims from its lawsuit that observers hadn’t been able to watch.

We rate Murtaugh’s statement Pants on Fire!

Tim Murtaugh, WRVA interview, Nov. 16, 2020 (3:54 mark).
Murtaugh. Text message, Nov. 19, 2020.
CNN, Presidential election results, accessed Nov. 19, 2020.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “ Trump lawsuit seeks to block certification of votes in Allegheny, Philadelphia counties,” Nov. 9, 2020.
PolitiFact, “ Trump’s wrong claim that election observers were barred in Pennsylvania, Michigan,” Nov. 12, 2020.
The New York Times, “ Judge Dismisses Trump Lawsuit Seeking to Delay Certification in Pennsylvania,” Nov. 21, 2020.
NBC News, “ Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejects Trump campaign lawsuit over election observers in Philadelphia,” Nov. 17, 2020.
Associated Press, “ Trump campaign drops key request in Pennsylvania lawsuit,” Nov. 16, 2020.

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