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Dry Fork man charged with tampering with absentee ballot applications

CHARLESTON — A plot to change the primary party ballot preferences of people filing requests for absentee ballots was uncovered by state and federal investigators with a mail carrier facing charges.

According to Bill Powell, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Thomas Cooper, 47, of Dry Fork, was charged Tuesday with “Attempt to Defraud the Residents of West Virginia of a Fair Election.”

According to the news releases, Cooper held the U.S. Postal Service contract for mail delivery for the towns of Onego, Riverton, and Franklin. Cooper allegedly altered five applications for absentee ballot requests in April, changing the ballot requests from Democratic primary ballots to Republican primary ballots. According to investigators, Cooper admitted to altering the ballots in a sworn affidavit, saying it was a joke.

The Pendleton County Clerk’s Office found that three other absentee ballot applications had been altered as well. The county clerk’s office reported the matter to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office which began the investigation. Warner alerted the public to the possible voter fraud on May 21.

“With an increase in the use of mail-in absentee ballots comes an increase in the obligation to deter voter fraud,” said Secretary of State Mac Warner. “As the state’s chief elections officer, I’d rather see compliance over convictions. The Pendleton County case is a perfect example of how elections officials, law enforcement and the general public can all work together to protect the integrity of our elections. Those who attempt to meddle with our elections will be held accountable.”

The Secretary of State’s Office reported their findings to a newly established West Virginia Election Fraud Task Force created to monitor absentee ballot fraud. The task force is led by Assistant United States Attorneys from both the Northern and Southern Districts of West Virginia, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and investigators from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office. The West Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General also were involved.

“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.”

Every registered voter in the state was mailed an application to request an absentee ballot in April after Warner issued an emergency rule in March allowing voters to cite the coronavirus as a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot.

Those who wish to vote absentee for the June 9 primary and haven’t received an application can go to wvsos.gov to download and mail in an application to their local county clerk. The deadline to request an absentee ballot for all voters is June 3. Absentee applications received after June 3, even if postmarked, cannot be accepted by law.

Absentee ballots can be mailed in and hand delivered to county clerks by Monday, June 8. The deadline for absentee ballots to be received is Wednesday, June 10, without a postmark, and absentee ballots postmarked by June 9 can still be accepted as long as they arrive at county clerk offices by June 15, when canvassing starts.

As of end of Tuesday morning, 249,263 absentee ballots have been requested — representing 20.3 percent of registered voters — and 135,726 absentee ballots have already been mailed back to county clerks. Of the state’s 1.2 million registered voters, 11.1 percent of registered voters have cast absentee ballots so far.

Today also marks the start of early voting excluding Sundays. Early voting is available during normal business hours at county courthouses or other designated locations and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Primary election day is Tuesday, June 9.

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