West Virginia mail carrier pleads guilty to changing party affiliations on mail-in ballot requests

The postal worker changed the party registrations on five ballot requests from "Democrat" to "Republican"

Published July 10, 2020 9:18PM (EDT)

Election office puts mail in ballots into a container  (George Frey/Getty Images)
Election office puts mail in ballots into a container (George Frey/Getty Images)

A West Virginia mail carrier faces up to eight years in prison after pleading guilty Thursday to changing party registrations on primary mail-in ballot requests, the Justice Department announced.

Thomas Cooper of Dry Fork admitted in court to one count of "attempt to defraud the residents of West Virginia of a fair election" and one count of "injury to the mail" after he used black ink to change party registrations from "Democrat" to "Republican" on five ballots along his route.

Those five residents would have received Republican ballots for the state's June 9 primary.

Cooper admitted to investigators that he circled "Republican" with a black pen, drawn so the circle overlapped with a blue ink underline below "Democrat" on the forms. He also checked the box for "Republican."

Cooper tampered with three other ballot requests, though he did not change the corresponding registrations.

Federal investigators told a U.S. district judge that the Pendleton County Clerk, who received the ballot requests this April, knew for a fact that some of the voters were not Republicans and called them. A family of Democrats had mailed their requests in a single batch, so the clerk suspected a postal worker might be involved.

A federal investigator and a U.S. postal inspector eventually questioned Cooper, who delivered mail in the towns where the eight voters lived. Cooper confessed to them that he had changed some of the requests from "Democrat" to "Republican."

According to a court affidavit, when he was asked about the other three requests, Cooper said: "I'm not saying no . . . [but] if it was on my route, I would take the blame."

The postal inspector then asked Cooper, "You were just being silly?"

"Yeah," Cooper said. "[I did it] as a joke. I don't even know them."

Mail-in ballots have become a political flashpoint in recent months after state and local leaders were left scrambling to ensure that elections could proceed safely when the coronavirus pandemic hit amid primary season. Though opinions fall largely along partisan lines, with Republicans generally arguing for restricting the practice, leaders in a number of deep-red states have expanded mail voting options. And states that have done so have reported surges in voter turnout.

A number of prominent Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have pushed baseless conspiracy theories about the security of voting by mail, only to be revealed later as having cast mail-in ballots themselves. Those individuals include Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway.

Members of the Trump family recently lent their voices to robocalls encouraging supporters to vote by mail. Some, including President Trump himself, have voted by mail.

However, not all of them did so successfully. In 2018, Ivanka Trump did not mail her absentee ballot until Election Day, which was too late for it to be counted. Her husband, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, did not mail his in to begin with; first lady Melania Trump did not sign hers, so it did not count; and President Trump got his own birthday wrong by a month.

Absentee ballot applications were mailed to all registered West Virginia voters in April, an effort to encourage voting during the pandemic. The state held its primary election June 9. There has been only one reported instance of fraud.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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