Election boards to fight federal subpoenas

Staff and wire reports

North Carolina’s election board says it will fight the subpoenas federal prosecutors sent seeking millions of voting documents and years of ballots. Sampson and Duplin counties were two of 44 counties in eastern North Carolina served with subpoenas for voting records dating back five years.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement voted unanimously Friday to ask state attorneys to work to block the subpoenas, issued last week to the state board and local boards in 44 counties.

U.S. Attorney Bobby Higdon in Raleigh issued the subpoenas, and hasn’t said specifically why U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators are seeking the information for a grand jury in Wilmington. Board member Joshua Malcolm says the subpoenas were overly broad and significantly affect the interests of voters.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich said Thursday that Higdon’s office is willing to narrow the requests and won’t require compliance until next year. They backed off requiring state and local elections officials to provide potentially tens of millions of ballots and voting documents within a few weeks — Sept. 25 — while they gear up for administering midterm elections.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh wrote to the state elections board acknowledging the board’s logistical challenges in complying with subpoenas received last week and expressing its desire to “avoid any interference with the ongoing election cycle.”

Joshua Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections, called the subpoenas sent to county boards “the most exhaustive on record.”

The subpoenas angered Democrats and voting rights activists, who saw them as needless interference in elections that could discourage lawful voters to go to the polls. Election officials also raised concerns about fulfilling the subpoenas by a Sept. 25 deadline as they carry out an election schedule already consolidated by state litigation over ballot questions.

“We understand and appreciate that concern and want to do nothing to impede those preparations or to affect participation in or the outcome of those elections,” Kielmanovich wrote to Lawson. As long as the board will preserve the documents sought, he added, “we are willing to extend the deadline for compliance until well after the upcoming election cycle is completed and the elected officials take office.”

While federal officials have stayed mum on the reason for the subpoenas, Higdon last month announced charges against 19 non-U.S. citizens for illegal voting, of which more than half were indicted through a Wilmington grand jury.

The assistant prosecutor wrote Thursday the subpoenas were served on a timetable designed to avoid the possible destruction of the documents under state law or procedures. But if they are now preserved, Kielmanovich wrote, “we can postpone compliance until January 2019.”

The state board planned a Friday meeting to discuss the subpoena it received, which seeks voter registration applications and balloting forms statewide going back nearly nine years. Kielmanovich wrote the same proposed agreement would be sent to the county boards, which were told to provide all of their ballots, poll books and voter authorization forms over the past five years.

The state board estimated all of the subpoenas would require well over 20 million documents to be submitted, including 5.6 million ballots. Among the ballots, nearly 2.3 million ballots would be absentee ballots that can be traced to each individual voter. That raised ballot secrecy concerns among some officials.

Kielmanovich said the scope of the subpoenas could be narrowed and voter choices on ballots redacted because “that specific information is not relevant to our inquiry.”

Earlier Thursday, two Democratic congressmen from North Carolina called the requests by the U.S. Justice Department and ICE 60 days before an election “appalling” and demanded the subpoenas be rescinded.

“At a time when the integrity and security of our elections is at risk of attacks from hostile foreign actors, our local election administrators should not be wasting their scarce resources compiling over 20 million voter records in search of fraud that does not exist,” U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield said in a release.

A North Carolina state board post-election audit for the November 2016 election — in which 4.8 million ballots were cast — counted 41 people who were not U.S. citizens who acknowledged voting.

The 44 counties contain about 2.7 million registered voters, about 39 percent of the state’s total. However, they account for almost 46 percent of the state’s registered black voters. Sampson and Duplin each tally a 29 percent black voting age population.

Sampson, Duplin among 44 N.C. counties targeted in voting probe

Staff and wire reports