Federal prosecutors on Thursday backed off requiring North Carolina state and local elections officials to provide potentially tens of millions of ballots and voting documents within a few weeks 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."
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," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich wrote to a state board lawyer. 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."
Kielmanovich works for U.S. Attorney Bobby Higdon, whose office has declined comment on why the documents requested through subpoenas to the state board and local election boards in 44 eastern counties are needed.
The subpoenas say they were sent on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and for a grand jury empaneled in Wilmington. Last month, Higdon 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 wrote the scope of the subpoenas could be narrowed, and it may be unnecessary to produce all cast ballots. He asked that actual voter choices on those ballots be 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 postelection 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.