Shanon Hankin, cleans a voter booth after it was used for voting at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center Tuesday,  April 7, 2020 in Madison, Wis.  Voters across the state are ignoring a stay-at-home order in the midst of a pandemic to participate in the state's presidential primary election. (Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
How mail-in-voting could change the 2020 election
03:50 - Source: CNN
Washington, DC CNN  — 

A case of alleged election fraud that a West Virginia mail carrier says was a joking attempt to alter ballot requests shows just how closely local and federal officials are watching.

According to a complaint written by an investigator working for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, Thomas Cooper, 47, of Dry Fork, West Virginia, and a mail carrier for Pendleton County, was joking when he altered ballot requests sent by some people on his delivery route, changing their party affiliations from Democrat to Republican.

The complaint goes on to note that the local clerk knew the people named on the ballot requests weren’t Republicans and gave them a call.

The revelation launched an investigation by the West Virginia Election Fraud Task Force, led by assistant US attorneys from the Northern and Southern districts of West Virginia, special agents from the FBI and investigators from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, and an attempted election fraud charge against Cooper. US Attorney Bill Powell announced on the charge on Tuesday.

An affidavit filed with the criminal complaint alleges that last month, the Pendleton County clerk received “2020 Primary Election COVID-19 Mail-In Absentee Request” forms from eight voters, where the voter’s party-ballot request appeared to have been altered. The clerk reported the finding to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, according to the US attorney’s office, which began an investigation.

That investigation found five ballot requests that had been altered from “Democrat” to “Republican.” On three other requests, the party wasn’t changed but the word “Republican” was circled in addition to the checked “Republican” box.

Cooper, who was responsible for mail delivery in the three towns from which the tampered ballot requests were mailed, admitted to altering some of the requests, saying it was a joke, according to the affidavit.

CNN has reached out to Cooper and the US Postal Service for comment.

It was not immediately clear if Cooper has retained an attorney and no court date had been scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.

The crackdown in West Virginia comes as President Donald Trump has repeatedly made false claims alleging widespread voter fraud in the US, including specific allegations that millions of illegal votes have been cast, and has criticized Democrats in California, Michigan and Nevada for their push to expand vote-by-mail amid the pandemic.

There is no evidence of rampant nationwide voter fraud, and numerous studies have suggested that voter fraud is all but nonexistent in the US. But for years, Trump has embraced conspiracy theories about voter fraud. He set up a presidential commission to investigate the issue, but the panel disbanded without uncovering any evidence to support his claims that millions had voted illegally in 2016, costing him the popular vote.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, announced earlier this year that the state would send every voter absentee-voting applications for the June 9 primary election amid Covid-19-related health concerns.

He said last week that because of investigators’ quick response in this case, the scheme was uncovered early and will not have an impact on the outcome of the election.

“Our primary strategy is to deter and prevent election fraud from taking place. I prefer compliance with the law over criminal convictions,” Warner said in a statement announcing the investigation last week. “But those who try to meddle with our elections will be held accountable.”

CNN’s Holmes Lybrand and Daniel Dale contributed to this report.