Six months after a grand jury demanded millions of North Carolina voting records, state officials have announced they will release fewer than 800 voter files — a potentially significant setback for a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney who has targeted noncitizen voting as one of his top priorities.
The state Board of Elections last week instructed 44 county election offices that received wide-ranging subpoenas for millions of voting records in August to hand over the files for only 289 voters. The state will turn over registration records for an additional 500 voters.
It is unclear whether the vastly reduced volume of records is the result of a court order or an agreement between the board and U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon Jr., who sought the records in August, shortly after he announced the arrest of 19 noncitizens on charges that they had illegally voted in the 2016 presidential election.
The board filed motions in federal court last month seeking to block the subpoenas. U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle immediately sealed the case, and state officials declined to comment on whether Boyle had issued an order.
“It is our understanding that this limited production is all that is required at this time, “ the board’s executive director, Kim Strach, wrote in a memo to county elections officers last week.
The subpoenas issued last summer sought all North Carolina voter registration records for eight years and actual ballots cast for five years in counties in the eastern half of the state. A separate subpoena to the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles demanded voter registration applications submitted by those born outside the United States.
State officials objected strenuously, saying the demands would require turning over more than 15 million documents and raised privacy concerns. They called the subpoenas a fishing expedition primarily targeting those born in other countries and accused Higdon of wasting resources in search of a type of election fraud that is exceedingly rare.
“I support law enforcement’s efforts to combat election fraud, but the recent federal subpoenas affecting millions of North Carolinians’ voting records were overbroad and highly burdensome to the state agencies,” North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said in a statement last week announcing that voter files of only about 790 North Carolinians would be turned over.
Stein declined to comment further. Spokespeople for Higdon and the state elections board declined to comment.
Legal experts said that even though state and local officials are turning over a fraction of the millions of records that were originally sought, the documents are likely to lead to further activity in Higdon’s investigation.
Jacob S. Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor and Washington-based criminal defense attorney, said the fact that the state has agreed to hand over a narrow number of voter files suggests that the U.S. attorney’s office provided more-specific descriptions of what it is seeking — and clues to the focus of the investigation.
“The fact that it’s been sealed means the judge has been persuaded that there was a legitimate government investigative interest that needed to be protected,” Frenkel said. “That alone suggests we may see more prosecutions.”
The initial subpoenas from Higdon’s office demanded that county elections boards turn over all voting records and ballots since August 2013 and that the state elections board produce all voter registration records and absentee ballot request forms since January 2010. The subpoena issued to the state Division of Motor Vehicles demanded all voter registration applications submitted since January 2010 through that agency by people born outside the United States, filled out in a language other than English or using any identification, such as a green card, indicating noncitizen status.
Agencies were initially given less than a month to fulfill the demands, but Higdon relaxed that deadline after state officials protested that fulfilling the subpoenas would interfere with preparations for the 2018 fall elections.
The vice chairman of the state board when the subpoenas were issued, Joshua Malcolm, said at the time that they were “overly broad, unreasonable, vague.” He also noted that the board regularly referred matters to the U.S. attorney for prosecution as a result of its own investigations, indicating that the document demands were unnecessary.
Higdon’s prosecution of noncitizen voters, meanwhile, has produced minimal penalties. Eight immigrants in North Carolina have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges that they improperly voted, but none have received prison time. One woman, a U.S. citizen and ex-girlfriend of one of the defendants, was sentenced to two months in prison last week after pleading guilty to helping her ex-boyfriend cast a ballot.
Two of those who have pleaded guilty were sentenced Thursday in federal magistrate court in New Bern, N.C., one receiving a $200 fine and the other a $300 fine and 12 months’ probation.
Both women — Elizabeth Amachaghi, originally from Nigeria, and Olive Martin, originally from Guyana — are legal permanent residents and said they did not know they were not allowed to cast ballots. They presented their green cards when they registered to vote, according to their attorney, public defender Sherri Alspaugh.