ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia postal carrier pleaded guilty Thursday to altering mail-in requests for absentee voter ballots.
Thomas Cooper entered the plea in federal court in Elkins to attempted election fraud and injury to the mail, U.S. Attorney Bill Powell said in a statement.
Cooper was charged in May after eight mail-in requests for absentee voter ballots had their party affiliations altered.
Cooper, 47, of Dry Fork, held a postal contract to pick up mail in the three towns in which the voters live and delivered the forms in April to the Pendleton County clerk, according to a federal affidavit.
An investigation by the secretary of state's office found five of the ballot requests were changed from Democrat to Republican with a black ink pen, the affidavit said.
Bennie Cogar, an attorney general's office investigator who conducted the probe on behalf of the secretary of state's office, said in the affidavit that the Pendleton County clerk called some of the voters after receiving the requests because she knew they were not Republicans. The clerk then contacted the secretary of state's office to report the alterations.
On the other three requests, the voters' party was not changed. However, in addition to the "Republican" box originally checked in blue ink, the word "Republican" was later circled in black ink, the affidavit said.
Cooper admitted in an interview with Cogar and a postal inspector that he changed some of the requests he picked up from the Onega post office from Democrat to Republican.
According to the affidavit, when he was then asked about the other requests, Cooper said, "I'm not saying no," but if the requests were picked up along his postal route, "I would take the blame." Cooper was then asked if he was "just being silly" and he replied he did it "as a joke" and that he didn't know those voters.
Absentee ballots became a political flashpoint nationally in recent months, often along partisan lines. Some state governors have moved to make absentee ballots more available in this year's elections because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Other elected officials, including President Donald Trump, have raised concerns that expanding the practice would increase the likelihood of election fraud. Examples of mail-in ballot fraud have been minimal, and Trump himself has voted absentee in recent elections.
Absentee ballot applications were mailed to all registered voters in West Virginia in April in a bid to encourage mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic. West Virginia held its primary election on June 9.
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