By David Bass
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — A four-year federal investigation into voter fraud in North Carolina during the 2016 election has ended, netting 70 total charges, including 40 charges of individuals voting illegally. Others were charged with falsely claiming U.S. citizenship to register to vote.
The investigation highlighted tensions between federal prosecutors appointed by former President Trump and officials with the N.C. Board of Elections and lawyers in N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office, most of whom are allies or appointees of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
“Although the probe has been called ‘sweeping’ by news outlets, in reality it was narrowly focused on noncitizen registration and voting,” said Dr. Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation. “The investigation netted a number of charges in cases that slipped by the State Board of Elections, indicating a failure of oversight on their part.”
“Given the results of the investigation, there does not appear to have been a systematic program of registering noncitizens to vote in North Carolina,” Jackson added. “But it’s important to note that this probe does not speak to other forms of election fraud.”
Robert Higdon, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, initiated the investigation after the 2016 election, but the process ramped up in August 2018 through a series of subpoenas. Those subpoenas applied to the N.C. State Board of Elections, N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, and 44 county boards of elections.
Higdon was a Trump appointee who resigned from office in February to make way for a new appointment from the Biden administration, which is standard practice with power shifts in the White House.
The investigation was partly stymied by resistance from the State Board of Elections and Stein’s office. The SBE — then composed of four Democrats, four Republicans, and one unaffiliated voter — voted unanimously in September 2018 to authorize Stein’s office to fight the subpoenas. In January 2019, Stein filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, called them “unprecedented” and “a quintessential fishing expedition.”
“The subpoena we’ve received was and remains overly broad, unreasonable, vague, and clearly impacts significant interests of our voters, despite the correspondence received from the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” said board member Joshua Malcolm in September 2018, according to The Associated Press. Malcolm, a Democrat, was appointed as chair of the SBE by Cooper two months later.
Stein released a statement, as well, saying, “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.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office later scaled back and narrowed its request. But in filings from February 2019, U.S. attorneys made it clear that N.C. officials, particularly the State Board of Elections itself, had slow-walked their cooperation in the investigation. “The board, in particular, has impeded this investigation at nearly every turn,” they wrote.
Throughout the process, Stein’s office appeared more concerned with the broad nature of the inquiry than potential voter fraud in North Carolina. A recent statement from Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman for attorney general’s office, said, “The U.S. Attorney’s investigation included troubling and invasive requests, including requesting ballots showing who millions of North Carolinians voted for in the 2016 presidential election.”
In an email to The News & Observer of Raleigh, Don Connelly, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District, countered, “The facts and arguments included in the United States’ court filings were vetted by the federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and leadership involved in this investigation, and we stand by them. We remain committed to continuing to work with our state partners on protecting the integrity of elections.”
The conclusion of the investigation is the latest chapter in ongoing tension between Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina over election integrity. Last week, Republican lawmakers on the N.C. Senate Elections Committee grilled State Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell over her handling of the 2020 election.
More recently, GOP lawmakers introduced a bill that would require lawmakers to sign off on any deal settling a lawsuit in which the legislature is a party.