CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WHSV) — Days after West Virginia’s secretary of state announced that his office was investigating an absentee ballot fraud scheme connected to the state’s mass effort to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, a Pendleton County mail carrier is charged with attempted election fraud.
Baskets of absentee ballots in a county clerk’s office about to be sent to West Virginians
The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that 47-year-old Thomas Cooper, a mail carrier for Pendleton County, has been charged with attempted election fraud.
According to U.S. Attorney Bill Powell, Cooper, from Dry Fork, W.Va., held a U.S. Postal Service contract to deliver mail in Pendleton County.
The criminal complaint against Cooper alleges that the Pendleton County clerk received eight “2020 Primary Election COVID-19 Mail-In Absentee Request” forms to the Pendleton County Courthouse in April that appeared to have had the voters’ party-ballot requests altered.
Elise White, Pendleton County Clerk, said they started to become concerned during a necessary process they’ve been doing for years when receiving absentee requests.
“When we receive an application, we compare it to our voter registration system,” White said. “We verify that they are registered to vote and we verify the address.”
She said they also verify the voter’s party affiliation with what they checked on their request form. White said when the forms did not match with the voter’s affiliated party, they set the voter’s name aside.
She said they gave each person a call just in case they made a mistake, but that’s when she knew something had happened.
“When we called one of the voters, they indicated to us they had not selected the party that was circled,” White said. “They had to underline theirs, and then, as we looked closer, we realized they had indeed underlined and it was in different colored ink.”
That’s when she reported the finding to the West Virginia Secretary of State, which began an investigation.
According to Secretary of State Mac Warner, the altered forms were investigated by the WV Election Fraud Task Force, which is a multi-agency law enforcement effort formed in April as a way to deter potential voter and election fraud with upcoming elections. Investigators responded to the complaint quickly, and Warner said the altered forms were uncovered early and will have no impact on the outcomes of any elections.
“We want everyone to be tuned into the increased opportunities for fraud,” said Secretary of State Warner. “Voting absentee makes it easy to vote, but increases opportunities for irregularities and fraud to occur. If you see something, say something.”
As the task force investigated, they confirmed that five ballot requests that had been altered from “Democrat” to Republican.”
The complaint against Cooper says he changed an underline that several voters had placed under “Democrat” to a circle around “Republican.”
On three other requests, the party was not changed, but the request for an absentee ballot had been altered.
White said they are still looking through all absentee requests to see if any have been altered, but only eight have been found so far.
The Department of Justice says Cooper was responsible for the mail delivery of the three towns from which the tampered requests were mailed: Onego, Riverton, and Franklin, West Virginia.
According to an affidavit, Cooper admitted to altering the requests placed in the mail at the Onega post office.
As for the others, he allegedly told investigators, “I’m not saying no. But if it was on my route, I would take the blame.”
“You were just being silly?” the investigator asked.
Cooper allegedly responded, “Yeah… I did it as a joke… I don’t even know them.”
He’s charged with one count of “Attempt to Defraud the Residents of West Virginia of a Fair Election.”
Special Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assisted the WV Election Fraud Task Force in the investigation, as did the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General.
“Manipulating one’s absentee ballot or application is not a laughing matter – it’s a federal offense,” Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said. “We must protect the integrity of the ballot box, and this demonstrates the aggressive action we will take to do so. It is more important now than ever for voters to watch for unexplained or suspicious marks and/or any other irregularity with their ballot. If something looks suspicious, let us know right away.”
West Virginia’s effort to send absentee ballot applications to all voters
In the start of April, West Virginia county clerk’s offices began an effort to mail absentee ballots to every registered voter in the state ahead of June’s primary election for the gubernatorial race.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner announced the plan at the end of March.
Essentially, every voter registered in the state was sent an absentee ballot application to their registered address.
State leaders encouraged all voters to fill out the applications and submit them to their county clerk in order to receive an absentee ballot for the election, and then mark the ballot according to state instructions by election day. And voters responded, with about 18% of West Virginia’s registered voters requesting absentee ballots for the June 9 primary election.
In late April, as voters began preparing for the state’s elections, Attorney General Morrisey issued an alert to voters to be wary of potential voter fraud schemes, largely connected to the “ability of fraudsters to steal or manipulate absentee ballots now that more people will use a mail-in, absentee ballot due to social distancing measures.”
How to report potential election fraud
Warner said an increase in absentee ballots comes with a natural increase in opportunities for fraud.
“Our primary strategy is to deter and prevent election fraud from taking place. I prefer compliance with the law over criminal convictions,” Warner said. “But those who try to meddle with our elections will be held accountable. That is certainly the case with the allegations presented today to the U.S. Attorney.”
His Investigations Division operates an Election Fraud Tip Line where citizens can call in complaints of possible election fraud and illegal activity 24 hours a day. The anonymous toll-free number is 1-877-FRAUD-WV.
“Even the slightest allegation of fraud can reduce public confidence in the process and the outcome of our election. We won’t allow that to happen,” said Warner. “Complaints will be investigated and those who commit fraud will be held accountable.”
“The Election Fraud Task Force is primed and ready to respond to any allegation of impropriety surrounding the election,” Warner said. “If citizens see something that doesn’t seem right, please call our tip line at 1-877-FRAUD-WV.”
Currently, West Virginians have four ways to vote in the June primaries. This includes being able to vote in person at the polls. County employees say it is still important to vote during the pandemic, no matter what method you choose.