A postal worker in Erie, Pennsylvania, claimed that his superiors were backdating postmarks on ballots, then told federal investigators that he didn’t actually know that — and then went back to his original position. Despite the flimsiness of the claim, President Donald Trump and his supporters have used it in their effort to blame widespread election fraud for his electoral defeat.
A postal worker in Erie, Pennsylvania, who claimed that his superiors were backdating the postmarks on ballots received after Election Day recanted his allegation, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced on Nov. 10, citing information from the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General.
But Richard Hopkins, the mail carrier who made the allegation, later said that he hasn’t recanted.
His claim was that two days after the election, he heard the Erie postmaster say to a supervisor that they had “messed up” by failing to backdate the postmark on a ballot that arrived after Nov. 3 at the Erie postal facility.
State law in Pennsylvania requires mail-in ballots to be received by Election Day in order to be counted. But a state Supreme Court ruling in September extended the deadline to Nov. 6, as requested by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, as long as the ballots were postmarked or presumed to be postmarked by Nov. 3, Election Day. Republicans have challenged the ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court, and the secretary of the commonwealth ordered election officials to keep late-arriving ballots separate for now.
Many aspects of Hopkins’ claim are unclear — from its shaky underpinnings to whether or not it has been recanted — but we’ll lay out what we know since President Donald Trump and his supporters are using it in their effort to blame widespread voter fraud for Trump’s defeat in the election.
Among those promoting the claim is Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who pledged on Nov. 7 to request that the Department of Justice investigate Hopkins’ claim.
Two days later that investigation became a possibility when Attorney General William Barr sent a memo to federal prosecutors telling them that they could investigate allegations of voter fraud, a move at odds with longstanding department guidance meant to avoid impacting election outcomes. That guidance says “overt criminal investigative measures should not ordinarily be taken in matters involving alleged fraud in the manner in which votes were cast or counted until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded.”
The Trump campaign also cited Hopkins’ claim in a federal lawsuit filed Nov. 9 aimed at blocking Pennsylvania from certifying its election results. President-elect Joe Biden holds a more than 53,000-vote lead in the state, according to the unofficial vote tally so far.
And Trump retweeted Hopkins’ video denying that he had recanted, calling him a “brave patriot” on Nov. 10.
But the claim is flimsy.
Hopkins first made the allegation anonymously in a video with James O’Keefe, founder of the conservative activist organization Project Veritas, on Nov. 5. Hopkins provided no evidence to support his allegation beyond repeating a conversation he claimed to have overheard. Erie Postmaster Robert Weisenbach, who was targeted in the allegation, told O’Keefe on a phone call included in the original video that the allegation was “untrue.”
So, initially, the claim amounted to one man’s word against another’s.
But evidence has mounted since then that weighs against Hopkins’ account.
On Nov. 10, the Erie Times-News reviewed 129 mail-in ballot envelopes that were postmarked Nov. 3, which was Election Day, but arrived at the Erie County Board of Elections after that. Election officials oversaw the review, according to the newspaper. Of those 129 ballots, only two were processed through the Erie facility, the newspaper reported.
“A bulk of the ballots were processed at various [postal service] locations across the state and the country, from places as far west as Tacoma, Washington, and as far south as Florida,” the newspaper reported. Those voters were registered in Erie County, but were out of town for any number of reasons, including for work or college.
“Not only did the Erie Times-News review find that only two late-arriving ballots processed at the Erie postal facility have a Nov. 3 postmark,” the story said, “but it also found that nine late ballots processed in Erie were postmarked Nov. 4 or later.”
Further undercutting Hopkins’ claim is audio from the interview conducted with him by postal investigators after the initial Project Veritas video. Hopkins secretly recorded the interview (he revealed to the agents that he had been recording it at the end), and Project Veritas posted it on YouTube.
The recording lasts for about two hours and features two postal investigators who talk through Hopkins’ claim with him.
Hopkins’ allegation rests largely on a conversation he said that he overheard in a common area at the Erie postal facility on Nov. 5 between two of his superiors.
Referring to Weisenbach, the postmaster, Hopkins said in the original Project Veritas video, “I heard him say to the supervisor that they messed up yesterday… and he told the supervisor they had postmarked one of the ballots the fourth instead of the third, because they were supposed to put them for the third.”
But in the interview with investigators, Hopkins said, “I didn’t specifically hear the whole story. I just heard a part of it and I could’ve missed a lot of it. … My mind probably added the rest.”
At one point, the investigators, who conducted the interview at the Erie facility, took Hopkins to the area where he said the conversation had happened, but he was unable to hear the investigator speaking at the same distance that Hopkins would have been from Weisenbach.
Hopkins said that the words he actually heard were: “ballots picked up on the fourth … one of them was marked the fourth and the rest were the third.”
He said that he never heard the word “backdate” and repeatedly acknowledged that he made assumptions about the meaning of the words he overheard.
Agapi Doulaveris, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service inspector general’s office, told us by email the office doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations, so we don’t know if Hopkins made any other statements in the interview about withdrawing or amending his claim. But we do know that in the audio of the interview, posted by Project Veritas, Hopkins revised his claim and no longer stood by his initial assertion.
After that, though, he changed his mind, again, and flipped back to his original accusation. Hopkins appeared in another video with O’Keefe, posted on Nov. 11, in which he reported being put on unpaid leave from the Postal Service and said of the investigators, “They were grilling the hell out of me. … I feel like I just got played.”
In the audio recording of the interview with investigators, though, Hopkins said that he understood that his participation was voluntary and repeatedly confirmed that he was comfortable with participating. At one point, he told the investigators that he understood signing a statement that reflected his revised version of what he heard “will save my ass.”
It’s also worth noting that Hopkins’ claim was very similar to another accusation promoted by Project Veritas. In that one, an anonymous Michigan postal worker said that his superiors were backdating ballots. The Postal Service inspector general’s office is investigating that situation, too. But, regardless of the outcome, the allegation would have no effect on the vote totals in Michigan since that state doesn’t accept ballots after Election Day.
Update, April 28: A report from the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General dated Feb. 26 found no evidence of fraud. The IG’s office reviewed ballots that were postmarked Nov. 3 or later and conducted interviews with Hopkins and other employees of the Erie postal facility, including the person in charge of the postmarking stamps. The investigation found that Hopkins had “witnessed a conversation between his Postmaster and another Supervisor,” and he assumed that the pair were talking about fraud.
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