With subpoenas, Justice, ICE fish for illegal voting

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Just as election officials across North Carolina were celebrating finalization of this fall’s ballot, and finally turning their focus to preparing for the important Nov. 6 midterm election, the Trump administration’s Justice Department decided to go fishing for phantom illegal voters.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina last week subpoenaed “all poll books, e-poll books, voting records and/or voter authorization documents, and executed official ballots” for the past five years from 44 county election boards in eastern North Carolina, including all of those in our region. The U.S. attorney also is seeking voter registration applications and balloting forms statewide for the past nine years. No reason was given for the sudden, onerous demand for potentially millions of documents, but election boards were told they had to comply by Sept. 25.

Of course a day after the subpoenas became public, and after much justified consternation about the ridiculousness of their timeline, prosecutors were forced to back up, telling the state elections board the records could be turned over in January instead. In a letter to the state election board, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich also said prosecutors were willing to narrow the scope of the documents they’re seeking. 

U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon has declined to say why his office wants the election-related documents. But the subpoenas were requested, according to the AP, by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for a grand jury now at work in Wilmington. Higdon’s office has charged 19 non-U.S. citizens with voting illegally in the 2016 election, and more than half of them, according to the AP, were indicted by the Wilmington grand jury. 

The 19 illegal voting suspects are from 14 countries and either voted or made a false citizenship claim of citizenship to vote in seven counties, including Wake, Columbus, Cumberland, Wilson, Washington, Johnston and Beaufort.

So it’s fairly obvious what ICE and federal prosecutors are after here: evidence of mass illegal voting by non-U.S. citizens. They don’t have any evidence of it other than the 19 cases they’re now prosecuting in Wilmington, so they want to fish for more — even if it means imposing onerous and costly burdens on county election offices. We were glad to see the nine-member State Board of Elections vote unanimously on Friday to ask the state’s attorneys to seek to block the subpoenas. The board called federal prosecutors’ demand for records overly broad and unreasonable and said it could have a negative effect on voters.

Law-and-order types no doubt will ask what’s the harm in allowing federal prosecutors to subpoena these election records. After all, don’t we want to know if everyone who votes does so legally?

Of course we do. But prosecutors don’t make such blanket records requests for other suspected crimes when only 19 suspects are identified. Nor do they demand records from all counties when potential wrongdoing has only been identified in seven.

There have been cases of mechanics at garages rolling back odometers or signing off on vehicle inspections when they shouldn’t have. Do prosecutors subpoena records from all garages in the state to determine if there are other potential lawbreakers? There have been firearms dealers who’ve violated federal laws by selling guns to people who weren’t eligible to buy them. Do we allow prosecutors to subpoena the records of all gun sellers to find similar lawbreakers? There have been medical care providers who’ve illegally received Medicare or Medicaid dollars. Are all medical providers in the state subpoenaed for their records as a result? 

The answer is of course not. So why should federal prosecutors be demanding election records on every voter from every county in the state for past elections?

The only answer we can think of is to serve the Trump administration’s political ends. President Trump has wrongly claimed that between 3 million and 5 million non-citizens voted in the 2016 election he won. Trump has made the claim because that’s roughly the margin of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the 2016 popular vote. Trump quietly disbanded the commission he appointed to look into his fraudulent claims of illegal voting, apparently because it couldn’t find the illegal votes he says were cast.

The reason Trump’s commission failed and the reason all similar efforts like it will fail is simple: voter fraud is rare, as numerous scholarly studies have found. And according to the AP, a post-election audit by North Carolina’s Board of Elections found only 41 non-citizens voted in the 2016 election. That’s an election in which 4.8 million ballots were cast.

Nonetheless, with 19 suspects now in the dock facing charges of illegal voting in North Carolina, the Trump Justice Department apparently hopes it can land more and prove what it hasn’t been able to up to now: that voter fraud is rampant. Federal judges should see through this ruse and squash these subpoenas.