She had been caught in an aggressive push by U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. to focus on the prosecution of noncitizens for voting, rather than the ballot-tampering allegations in Bladen County, N.C. Republicans across the country, including President Trump, have sought to paint illegal voting as a widespread phenomenon that threatens the integrity of American elections.
Paige was arrested in August, on the same day as the man she had helped vote, Guadalupe Espinosa-Pena, a green-card holder originally from Mexico whom she is no longer romantically involved with. At the time, she told him he should vote “if he wanted his voice to be heard,” a news release from Higdon’s office said.
On the voter registration card she helped him fill out, they left a question about citizenship unanswered, the release said. Paige told investigators that she then submitted the form to the Board of Elections for processing. But later on in the process, another person erroneously checked the citizenship question “Yes,” so Espinosa-Pena was registered to vote, Higdon’s office says.
During her sentencing Thursday, Paige told the court she did not know that Espinosa-Pena could not lawfully vote.
“The reason it happened is because there was no training about whether or not legal aliens could vote — never — all of the elections I’ve ever worked,” she said, according to a transcript of the hearing that was published by HuffPost.
Paige’s lawyer, James E. Todd Jr., a federal public defender, told the court that the manual given to poll workers had only one relevant mention of citizenship under “reasons for a voter challenge,” at the very end.
“I think it’s a failure in the system, in this case inadequate training and preparation of those people that are assigned to work at the polling places,” he said.
Higdon spokesman Don Connelly pointed a reporter’s inquiry toward the office’s news release.
Legal experts interviewed by The Washington Post described Paige’s prosecution as unusual. It was part of a sweep led by Higdon’s office in which 20 immigrants were arrested over several days on the suspicion of voting illegally.
“I can’t remember having anything ever to do with any voting issues or voting fraud,” Nick Akerman, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney and a former federal prosecutor. “Somebody has to go out of their way to look into that.”
Higdon, who was appointed to his seat in North Carolina’s Eastern District by Trump in 2017, pursued those prosecutions while an organized ballot-tampering effort that state officials had repeatedly warned about was allegedly gearing up in the same part of North Carolina, according to a Washington Post investigation. That effort has tainted a still-unresolved congressional race from November.
“The right to vote is a precious privilege available only to citizens of the United States,” Higdon said in the statement. “My office will do its part to protect the rights of every American citizen to cast their vote freely and to have it counted fairly.”
Investigators from Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services were involved in the case.
Akerman said that U.S. attorney’s offices typically focus on crimes of significance and wide prevalence or that prosecuting would have a deterrent effect. “This is such a rare occurrence,” he said of the details of the crime Paige pleaded guilty to. “It surprises me that resources are being used.”
Higdon’s efforts, which are ongoing, come amid a national discussion about voting that is increasingly marked by bitter partisan disputes. Republicans in states across the country have worked to implement restrictive requirements for voting to eliminate what they say is a significant fraud problem; experts and researchers say the amount of actual voting fraud has never been shown to be significant.
Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election has never been backed up with evidence. The commission he formed to investigate voter fraud presented no widespread evidence of fraud before it was disbanded less than a year after its creation.
An outline for a report the commission was working on included blank sections under headings such as “Improper voter registration practices” and “Instances of fraudulent or improper voting,” a sign, one of the commission members later said, that it was instead looking to prove preordained conclusions.
In Texas last month, Republican officials announced that as many as 58,000 noncitizens might have voted illegally in state elections over the previous two decades, but it was soon disclosed that thousands of people on the list were eligible to vote. In North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Indiana and Kansas, officials made similar claims that later did not pan out, The Post reported.
“For a while, a lot of people were using voter fraud as an excuse to pass really restrictive laws to make it harder to vote but wouldn’t make our elections any safer, and there was a swift and convincing pushback among academics, researchers and advocates as to how rare voter fraud actually is,” said Myrna Pérez, leader of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections project. “And in response to that, we’re seeing some folks deciding to be extraordinarily aggressive and pursuing cases so they have some talking points.”
Many Democrats say restrictive voting laws suppress turnout and put a chill on voters’ desire to engage in the process.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if these indictments are later used to justify a whole plethora of restrictions on the right — many of which are completely unrelated to the underlying issue,” Pérez said.
In a brief interview with The Post, Paige said that facing the might of the federal government had been difficult for her.
“This stuff will keep you awake — you never think you’d be in any serious trouble,” she said. “Going to federal prison and $250,000 fine and that kind of thing. It’s been quite traumatic.”
Amy Gardner contributed to this report.