Federal subpoenas demand 'tsunami' of NC voter records
Posted September 5, 2018 10:55 a.m. EDT
Updated September 5, 2018 6:57 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Federal investigators connected to the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have subpoenaed massive troves of voter data, including executed ballots, from 44 North Carolina counties and the State Board of Elections.
The subpoenas cover eight years' worth of data -- millions of documents. The subpoenas are "the most exhaustive on record" for elections officials, State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement attorney Josh Lawson said in an email to the assistant U.S. Attorney handing the case.
Complying by a Sept. 25 deadline will make it difficult for county officials to also prepare for the approaching November elections, Lawson said. More than 2 million of the ballots federal investigators demanded could potentially be connected to the people who cast them.
Most of the subpoenas target 44 counties in eastern North Carolina, the territory for U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon's office. They tie back to a grand jury inquiry based in Wilmington.
A subpoena served on the state board itself asks for "all voter registration applications" and other documents dating back to the beginning of 2010. This request is statewide and covers not only voter registration forms but absentee ballot requests, voter registration cancellation forms and "admission or denial of non-citizen return" forms.
This request alone covers 15 million documents, the state said. It is so massive as to be absurd, Wake County Board of Elections Vice Chairman Greg Flynn said.
"I don't even know if they have the manpower to process all that," Flynn said. "It's just so broad, and the number of documents you're talking about is just phenomenal."
The inquiry may be connected to a grand jury investigation that charged 19 foreign nationals last month with voting in the 2016 elections. That inquiry was also based in Wilmington, and this new round of subpoenas comes from investigators in that case: U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich and Homeland Security/ICE Special Agent Jahaira Torrens.
A Department of Justice spokeswoman said the department would have no comment on the new subpoenas. Torrens declined comment, and an attempt to reach Kielmanovich Wednesday was not immediately successful.
Wake County Commissioner John Burns wrote to Higdon Wednesday, asking him to explain "the scope and timing of this extraordinary request."
"I write to let you know that this investigation, launched 60 days prior to a general election of monumental importance ... risks being viewed by the public as a partisan effort to interfere with the vote," Burns wrote. "Knowing you, I know this is highly unlikely to be the case."
Subpoenas served on the state and Wake county boards state that the data is due in Wilmington by Sept. 25, but follow-ups between Lawson and Kielmanovich indicate extensions may be granted. The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement plans an emergency meeting Friday, and Wake County plans to wait until after that meeting to respond to the U.S. Attorney's Office, county Elections Director Gary Sims said.
Sims said that, by policy, the board keeps state and federal election records going back only 22 months.
Wake's subpoena asked for: "Any and all poll books, e-poll books, voting records, and/or voter authorization documents, and executed official ballots (including absentee official ballots), that were submitted to, filed by, received by, and/or maintained by the Wake County board of Elections from August 30, 2013, through August 30, 2018."
The State Board subpoena goes back further, seeking voter registrations and other documents back to 2010.
Election day ballots can't be traced back to individual voters, but early and absentee votes can be, according to the state board. The board said it queried its databases Wednesday and believes the local boards have access to 2.27 million ballots traceable to voters who cast them and another 3.37 million that can't be connected to individual voters.
Marc Elias, a national attorney for Democrats, called attention to the investigation Tuesday evening on Twitter.
"I now have the relevant language from Grand Jury subpoenas that the Trump DOJ sent to 44 North Carolina counties 60 days before the midterm elections," Elias wrote on Twitter. "It is very broad and aimed at voting records. This is highly unusual & extremely disturbing. We must demand answers!"
Flynn said the subpoenas look like a fishing expedition.
"Gone, apparently, are the days when DOJ would be shutting down massive election interference like this," he said in a tweet. "Now it appears to be initiating it. Whether intentional or not, a tsunami of records demands will severely test even the most resilient of election boards."
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a prominent group of attorneys on elections issues in North Carolina, said in a statement Wednesday morning that it would monitor the situation closely and keep its legal options open.
“The timing and scope of these subpoenas from ICE raise very troubling questions about the necessity and wisdom of federal interference with the pending statewide elections,” Interim Executive Director Kareem Crayton said in the statement. “With so many well-established threats to our election process from abroad, it is odd to see federal resources directed to this particular concern."
The coalition tied the investigation back to an effort by the Trump administration to prove massive voter fraud through a commission headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. That commission disbanded earlier this year without finding evidence of major fraud.
In its early stages, the commission sought voting records from states across the country, raising privacy and targeting concerns.
“This is clearly a fishing expedition that picks up where the Pence-Kobach Commission stopped," said Allison Riggs, lead attorney for the coalition on various redistricting and elections lawsuits. "This administration appears to be outsourcing the commission’s discredited agenda to U.S. Attorneys."
This article has been edited to correct Wake County Board of Elections member Greg Flynn's title. He is a former chairman and the board's current vice chairman.