By Tim Cook, Spirit of Jefferson
HARPERS FERRY, W.Va – Tess Bishop, 28, lives and works in Utah but makes it back to her hometown regularly, including this spring when she helped decide the town’s June 11 election.
That an out-of-state resident – the daughter of Mayor Wayne Bishop – had her vote counted while town officials rejected the provisional ballots cast by Town Council candidate Leah Howell and two other Washington Street residents has many in the town outraged.
“This is shameful,” said Steven Ramberg, a former Harpers Ferry Planning Commissioner. “[It’s] an indication how far these people will go to assert their own personal agendas.”
In the election that many in Harpers Ferry believe will decide the fate of the proposal for a lavish, new Hill Top House Hotel resort to replace the dilapidated hotel that has been shuttered since 2008, Wayne Bishop handily won a second term but just a handful of votes separate Hill Top supporters and opponents vying for five seats on Town Council.
It’s illegal for someone to knowingly cast a ballot in an election in which the person is not entitled to vote, said Donald Kersey, general counsel for the Secretary of State in Charleston.
Doing so is considered voter fraud, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.
Three months before Harpers Ferry’s election, Tess Bishop registered to vote in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she rents a one-bedroom, second-floor apartment on Park Street.
Her LinkedIn account says she has worked for a helicopter skiing tour company near Utah’s capital city since December. Her account says she worked for another ski-related business in Salt Lake City from late 2016 until May of last year.
Kersey said that for someone to be considered a legal resident of Harpers Ferry, a person would have to provide “convincing evidence” that he or she resides there and show that he or she intends to reside in the jurisdiction “indefinitely.”
Evidence could include rent or mortgage payments, mail delivery and the address listed on a driver’s license or car registration. All the evidence would be weighed together, he explained.
A 1984 West Virginia Supreme Court ruling offers guidelines for determining whether someone has established a valid residency in the state, Kersey explained.
A person doesn’t have to live in West Virginia 12 months out of the year to legally vote here, Kersey said. A work situation might mean a voter stays overnight in another state, he said. A person could also keep state residency while living away to attend school, he said. That person could also vote by absentee ballot.
But someone claiming West Virginia residency who lives and works in a far-off state would face a bigger challenge proving residency here, Kersey said.
Tess Bishop, a Jefferson High graduate who grew up living at her parents’ East Ridge Street home, registered to vote in Jefferson County in 2008. Before this month’s town election, the last election she took part in here was Harpers Ferry’s municipal contest in 2015.
She could not be reached for comment. Her social media account were deactivated on Monday. Wayne Bishop did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.
State law prevents the Secretary of State from disclosing whether a complaint of election fraud has been filed, Kersey said. The office cannot disclose whether it is investigating an election, he said.
Any findings from a Secretary of State investigation would be turned over to the county prosecutor to decide whether to file a charge or have a grand jury review the case, he said.
“It is unfortunate and it’s uncomfortable at times to explain why we can’t acknowledge it,” Kersey said. “There are some due process issues out there that exist in why the statute was passed.”
Elayne Edel, a former Town Council member and Wayne Bishop’s wife, also cast a ballot during the early voting period, as did the couple’s other offspring, Taylor Bishop.
Taylor Bishop, 31, owns a home on Putnam Street in Harpers Ferry. Public records show she once lived in Saint George, Utah, but she has continued to maintain her voting residency in Jefferson County since 2008. No public records were found that she ever registered to vote in Utah.
The mayor won re-election by 15 votes but the outcome for two Town Council spots remains up in the air after the Town Council, sitting as the official election canvass body, rejected six rejected provisional ballots – at least four of them cast by Harpers Ferry residents.