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Probation for WVa mail carrier in absentee ballot case

ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia postal carrier who pleaded guilty to altering mail-in requests for absentee voter ballots was sentenced to five years’ probation Monday.

Thomas Cooper was charged in May 2020 after eight mail-in requests for absentee voter ballots had their party affiliations altered. He pleaded guilty last July.

Cooper, 48, 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 2020 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, a state 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.

Cooper was sentenced in federal court in Elkins for attempted election fraud and injury to the mail.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said Cooper’s conviction and sentencing “should serve as a strong warning to anyone else who feels tempted to commit election fraud.”

Absentee ballot rules were relaxed last year to make voting easier and safer during the coronavirus pandemic. Absentee ballot applications were mailed to all registered voters in West Virginia to encourage mail-in voting for the June 2020 primary election. For the November general election, all state voters were allowed to fill out an absentee ballot application online.