The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of West Virginia has charged a Pendleton County mail carrier, accusing him of tampering with eight absentee ballot applications.
According to a criminal complaint filed on Tuesday, Thomas Cooper switched five of the applicants’ requests for a Democratic ballot to requests for a Republican ballot. He later told an investigator with the West Virginia attorney general’s office he did this “as a joke.”
In April, the Secretary of State’s office mailed every registered voter in the state an absentee ballot application, designed like a postcard.
The Pendleton County Clerk’s office noticed in April that eight of these applications “appeared to be altered by use of a black-ink pen,” according to court documents.
The clerk reached out to the ballot applicants, knowing they were registered Democrats. Four voters confirmed they had underlined the Democratic option in blue pen, allowing the mail carrier to allegedly circle the Republican option in a way that covered the blue line.
On two other ballots, the USPS mail carrier had scratched out a clearly circled request for Democrat ballots with blank ink, and re-circled “Republican.”
West Virginia Public Broadcasting was unable to reach the Pendleton County Clerk’s office Tuesday evening.
In a written statement to WVPB, U.S. Attorney Bill Powell said his office remains “vigilant for any illegal conduct and will be aggressive in our enforcement of the rule of law.”
Had the mail carrier’s conduct gone unnoticed, the affidavit states “it would have caused the Clerk to give Republican ballots to 5 Democrat voters—skewing the primary election by 5 votes and thereby defrauding all West Virginians of a fair election.”
In a statement on Thursday, Secretary of State Mac Warner said his office and law enforcement caught the fraud attempt early enough to avoid any damage.
The Department of Justice has temporarily halted all nonessential in-person grand jury hearings until July 1, meaning the U.S. attorney’s office is unable to prosecute the crime until at least a month after the state’s primary election.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and an increased access to absentee ballots for all West Virginians, 2020 is likely to be the most popular year for mail-in ballots in the Mountain State. On May 19, Warner’s office reported nearly a fifth of the state’s registered voters had requested an absentee ballot. There have been more than 115,000 absentee ballots cast so far.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.