CHARLES TOWN – Tess Bishop, the younger daughter of Harpers Ferry Mayor Wayne Bishop, pleaded guilty to voting illegally in Harpers Ferry’s municipal election last June.
That election is still unresolved and closely contested.
Bishop, a 30-year-old Utah resident, was sentenced to serve 24 hours of community service in Jefferson County before March 2021. Failing to complete the community service sentence by the court’s deadline would subject her to possibly having to serve three days in jail.
“I just wanted to say that I realize what I did was wrong,” Bishop told Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Debra McLaughlin last Wednesday. “And I want the best for my hometown, and I’m ready to put this behind me and go forward in a more positive direction.”
Despite her conviction, Bishop’s votes on the ballot she cast — on which she could cast up to five votes for council candidates — are irretrievably mixed in with the 174 other ballots cast in the election. Only a costly and burdensome effort to repeat the town’s election could prevent her votes from being counted, said Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Harvey during the court hearing conducted over the internet with Bishop participating from Utah.
Bishop’s illegal vote effectively canceled someone else’s legally cast vote, Harvey explained. “And unfortunately there is no remedy for that,” he said. “The ballots are in the box and shuffled anonymously. There’s no way to remove that from the total count, and unfortunately, in the state of West Virginia, anytime someone illegally votes the only remedy that we could possibly have would be to totally redo the election altogether, which would be onerous and expensive.”
Bishop pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement struck with Harvey’s office after the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office conducted an election-fraud investigation.
Her father won a second two-year term as Harpers Ferry’s mayor by 16 votes during last year’s municipal election, a result that was not challenged. However, determining who should rightfully serve in three seats on the five-member council remains unresolved pending an upcoming court-ordered count of whatever votes are marked on four still-sealed provisional ballots.
Six people could win or lose one of the three council seats depending on those provisional-ballot votes. Tie-vote tallies are possible, which would be resolved by a coin toss or some other random method of selection.
Meanwhile, for more than a year, Wayne Bishop, as mayor, has stood with three other current Harpers Ferry officials who opposed several legal efforts to compel town officials to count the votes on provisional ballots cast by four town residents. The mayor supported a decision to reject those ballots when address errors made at the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles office in Kearneysville kept those town residents — including one whose name was on the ballot after she was certified to run for a council seat as a town resident — from being listed in the town’s poll book.
On June 15, the West Virginia Supreme Court issued an opinion supporting an order that McLaughlin issued to count whatever votes were cast on the disputed ballots. McLaughlin had ruled earlier that Bishop and three council members failed to uphold state law requiring election officials to overlook such technical errors that would disenfranchise legitimate voters.
During last week’s court hearing, Harvey said Tess Bishop, who lives and works in a sales and marketing job in Utah but grew up in Harpers Ferry, attending Jefferson County public schools, had legally maintained a voting registration in Jefferson County since 2008. Her voting registration declared her parents’ home in Harpers Ferry as her official residency, Harvey said.
However, in March of 2019, Bishop obtained a Utah driver’s license. At the same time, she registered as a Democrat to vote in Utah, a process that required her to swear an oath that she was then a resident of that state.
Utah does not automatically register people to vote when they obtain a driver’s license, Harvey pointed out in a court memorandum.
Three months after receiving a driver’s license and registering to vote in Utah, Bishop returned to Harpers Ferry and cast the illegal ballot during an early voting period before Election Day on June 11.
Bishop showed up to vote at a poll site inside the Town Hall of Harpers Ferry without a driver’s license or any other identification. Her mother, Elayne Edel, a former Harpers Ferry council member, “vouched for [Bishop’s] identity” to a poll worker, Harvey said.
Addressing the plea agreement his office arranged with Bishop and her attorney, Harvey said Bishop, through her guilty plea, has accepted responsibility for the trouble and damage her vote has caused.
Harvey said the plea agreement also avoided potentially significant costs for county taxpayers to prosecute Bishop, including what could have been “tremendous expense” to extradite her from Utah.
A conviction for illegal voting in West Virginia is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.
Harvey said the Secretary of State’s Office, which investigates legal fraud, told him that a person convicted of illegal voting in West Virginia would typically be required to pay a fine and court costs. However, Bishop’s illegal vote caused enough damage and disruption to Harpers Ferry and its election to warrant “a little harsher sentence,” Harvey said.
“I do believe that her chances of committing a new offense are slim to none,” he said.
The chief prosecutor recommended that Bishop serve time in jail, a time that could be substituted with community service.
Afterward, McLaughlin imposed a sentence of three days in jail, but she agreed to allow that jail time to be replaced with 24 hours of community service as West Virginia Code allows. The judge gave Bishop seven months to complete the community service.
“Community service is for the benefit of the community,” McLaughlin said. “I do feel strongly about the fact that your community service is owed to the citizens of Jefferson County.”
McLaughlin said she wished she could order Bishop to perform her community service in Harpers Ferry, but the judge added that the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office makes those decisions while running the county’s community service sentencing program.
Bishop’s attorney, Barry Beck of Martinsburg, asked that Bishop be allowed to serve community service in Utah, citing the difficulties of safely traveling during the coronavirus outbreak. Bishop wanted to complete her community service as soon as possible to allow her to apply to expunge her conviction from her court record, Beck said.
“It’s really not her convenience so much as it is to, hopefully, put this behind her,” he explained.
West Virginia law allows a person to petition a judge to clear their court record of a misdemeanor conviction one year after the person finishes any sentence or period of court supervision related to the conviction.
McLaughlin said she would consider a future request to change where Bishop performs her community service if the outbreak continues to interfere with safe travel during the next seven months.
Leaving issues and emotions unresolved for more than a year, Harpers Ferry’s election was not only closely contested but sharply debated. For many town residents, the election’s outcome was an informal referendum over whether the proposed Hill Top House Hotel redevelopment should move forward with a majority of town officials who are more favorably minded toward the project.
Many county residents and officials have closely watched the election anticipating progress—or perhaps a resolution—over the $140 million hotel project.
The Hill Top has encountered stop-and-go proposals, discussions and negotiations with various sets of town officials since 2009.
As mayor, Wayne Bishop has been a pivotal figure among a one-vote majority of council members seen by supporters of the current Hill Top redevelopment plans as continuing to delay the proposed luxury hotel project considered a potential boon to tourism for the county and the state.
The latest major negotiation point is whether the envisioned Hill Top project can control, as well as build underneath, mostly undeveloped and unused municipal rights of way that cross the hotel property.