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Wilson joins fight against federal voter probe

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State officials voted Friday to fight a federal subpoena targeting voter records throughout eastern North Carolina, including those in Wilson and Nash counties.

“All of us who received these subpoenas felt, ‘Oh my gosh, what now? How do we handle this?’ because it is an unbelievable task to be burdened with, especially when we’re already behind in getting ready for the coming election,” said Wilson County Board of Elections Executive Director Rená Morris.

According to the subpoenas from U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. in Raleigh, election boards in 44 counties were required to produce “any and all poll books, voting records and/or voter authorization documents, and executed official ballots (including absentee official ballots)” between 2013 and 2018 in connection with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation. The subpoena to the state board requested similar information dating back to 2010, with both the county and state required to produce the estimated 15 million pages by Sept. 25 to the U.S. District Court building in Wilmington.

The state board called a teleconference meeting about the subpoenas on Friday morning. Board Chairman Andy Penry gave an overview of the requests, noting the subpoena was faxed to the state at 5 p.m. Friday before a holiday weekend with other boards receiving similar faxes, including one to Wilson on Tuesday. Penry said many local officials contacted the state to ask whether the subpoenas were legitimate or a scam to obtain voter information.

Since the subpoenas arrived, state officials have been in contact with representatives from Higdon’s office, highlighting the unreasonable timetable when election staff are preparing for the midterm elections. According to a Thursday letter from Higdon’s office to the state board, the deadline for the records was postponed until January.

Issue also was taken with requests for ballots, which include a voter’s name and votes cast.

“We have not been given a reason as to why ICE wants that information and candidly, I can’t think of any reason for it,” said state board Vice Chairman Joshua Malcolm.

In the Thursday letter from Higdon’s office, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich conceded this point and said the actual vote information can be redacted.

“In other words, we want to prevent disclosure of any voter’s actual choice of candidates in any race,” the letter states. “That specific information is not relevant to our inquiry.”

Morris said she disagreed with the request for more than 2 million ballots that can be traced to the individual voters, but redacting the information also made an already exhaustive request even worse.

“It would be extremely time-consuming depending on the number of ballots you have,” she said.

Following a 42-minute closed session by the state board, Malcolm made a motion that was unanimously approved to authorize Attorney General Josh Stein to “take any and all necessary steps to quash the grand jury subpoena” on behalf of the state and all 44 county elections boards in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Prior to taking a vote, board member John Lewis said he recognized the motion was not an easy one to authorize, but it was necessary.

“Failing to do and accept this motion would then basically require (the 44 counties) to expend even more money to hire their own counsel to defend themselves in this, and then run the risk that we are going to have inconsistent defenses between the state board and the various 44 counties in the Eastern District of North Carolina,” Lewis said.

Morris said the state action provided a “sense of relief” and allowed her staff to focus on readying for the midterm elections.

“Everyone is already behind schedule for the upcoming election due to all the litigation issues that have come up from redistricting and constitutional amendments,” Morris said. “I have no idea how long it will take to gather the information in the subpoena because it is such a tremendous amount of information. Some will be relatively easy to compile, but they’re asking for records back to 2013, so it would have been impossible to get all that before the deadline on the 25th.”

While the subpoenas did garner widespread attention, the request is not out of the blue. Higdon’s office recently announced the indictment of 19 foreign nationals throughout eastern North Carolina charged with federal crimes related to fraudulent voting. The cases are being investigated under the newly created framework of the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force in eastern North Carolina and led by ICE - Homeland Security Investigations. Information requests for indictment connections to Wilson County were denied.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who represents a portion of Wilson County, and U.S. Rep. David Price released a joint statement Thursday regarding the subpoena targeting North Carolina’s voter records, calling the probe an attack “clearly designed to disenfranchise and intimidate voters and to disrupt the administration of an impending election with major state and national implications.”

Butterfield and Price joined a handful of other Democratic leaders in a Friday letter to U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz and Deputy Inspector General John Kelly regarding the federal request, urging an investigation to “determine the legal implications of and rationale for these subpoenas.”

“Given what we know about the scope of the subpoenas and the counties that were targeted, we are concerned that this could be part of the Trump Administration’s dangerous and anti-democratic strategy of voter suppression and intimidation to limit equal access to the ballot box,” the letter states.

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