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State officials push back on Trump voter fraud claims in W.Va.

CHARLESTON — Claims made by President Donald Trump on Tuesday night during his first debate with Democratic challenger and former vice president Joe Biden regarding voting integrity received bipartisan pushback Wednesday.

Trump, when asked about how confident voters should be that the elections in November will be fair and what the candidates were prepared to do to reassure voters that the winner next month will be legitimate by moderator Chris Wallace, pointed to West Virginia as an example of voter fraud.

“Take a look at West Virginia, a mailman selling the ballots,” Trump said. “They’re being sold. They’re being dumped in rivers. This is a horrible thing for our country.”

“There is no evidence of that,” Biden said in response.

Trump was incorrectly referring to a criminal conviction in West Virginia during the lead up to the June 9 primary where a mail carrier in Pendleton County pleaded guilty on two federal counts for interfering with absentee ballot applications.

Both Republican West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., released statements Wednesday assuring voters that the upcoming elections on Tuesday, Nov. 3, and the ongoing absentee voting process is secure.

“The timely prosecution of election fraud in the 2020 Primary election cycle in West Virginia shows that we take election fraud seriously, that the system we have in place works well,” Warner said. “Voters should be confident that this election will be safe, secure, and fair.”

“It’s plain wrong that President Trump would mislead Americans to think mail-in voter fraud is happening in West Virginia,” Manchin said. “There is no widespread voter fraud in West Virginia and any claim to the contrary is false.”

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, the Pendleton County Clerk’s Office in April became suspicious about several absentee ballot application postcards that county clerks across the state mailed to all 1.2 million registered voters during Governor Jim Justice’s stay at home executive order and shutdown of non-essential businesses during the spring for the coronavirus pandemic. Justice also moved the primary election from May 12 to June 9 to give county clerks more time to prepare.

The Pendleton County Clerk’s Office contacted the Secretary of State’s Office about their concerns, which were then turned over to a newly created Election Anti-Fraud Task Force consisting of state and federal law enforcement. Bill Powell, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, brought charges in May against Thomas Cooper, 47, from Dry Fork.

Cooper, a contract mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Services, later pleaded guilty to one count of “Attempt to Defraud the Residents of West Virginia of a Fair Election” and one count of “Injury to the Mail.” Cooper admitted to changing the party registration from Democratic Party to Republican Party on eight absentee ballot request postcards. Cooper told investigators he made the changes on the cards as a joke.

“The judicial and electoral system worked: he was caught, charged with attempted election fraud and pled guilty,” Manchin said. “Mail-in voting is safe and altering ballots is a felony punishable with up to five years in prison and a $20,000 fine in West Virginia, in addition to any federal penalty. To suggest anything different is just not true and an attempt to undermine Americans’ faith in our Democratic process and disparage West Virginia is wrong.”

In his statement, Warner said he agreed with Trump’s concerns about the possible increase in election fraud. However, Warner said he has worked the last three years with county clerks, the West Virginia National Guard, and Harvard University on developing best practices for election integrity and security. Warner said the fact that the Pendleton County Clerk’s Office quickly found the altered applications was an example that county clerks were keeping elections secure.

“We have conducted extensive training with clerks and election officials, covering everything from cyber security, to continuity of operations, to preventing and detecting fraud,” Warner said. “This was a prime example of a dedicated clerk, closely watching her election process, and quickly reporting an anomaly as she had been trained to do. The system worked, and we were able to rapidly assure the voters of West Virginia that the election was secure.”

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