LUMBERTON — The surrender of five years worth of Robeson County voting records to the U.S. attorney’s office in Raleigh was put on hold Thursday.
The county Board of Elections voted during a special meeting to sign a document preservation agreement that came with an offer from federal prosecutors to postpone the delivery of the records covering the period of Aug. 30, 2013, to Aug. 30, 2018, until sometime in January.
The board members also signed and sent to the state Board of Elections a resolution asking the state board to represent Robeson County in any litigation related to the federal request for records that was made just weeks before the Nov. 6 general election. The subpoena was sent to the state board and elections boards in 40 North Carolina counties in the eastern third of the state.
“We didn’t have a problem with that. We don’t want to destroy any documents,” interim County Attorney Gary Locklear said of the preservation agreement.
They did have a problem with the volume of subpoenaed documents.
“My God, they want everything,” Locklear said. “It’s like they even want the toilet paper in the building.”
The subpoena is on its agenda when the state Elections Board meets Friday .
In a letter faxed Thursday to the affected elections boards, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Keilmanovich wrote his office is willing to discuss narrowing the scope of the documentation sought.
Locklear said that would be a help, but the board is preparing to fight the federal prosecutors over how broad that scope will be. That’s why the county board elected to follow a provision in state law that says the state Board of Elections can represent local boards in court.
“This is tantamount to litigation,” Locklear said.
And Robeson County isn’t prepared to fight the subpoena in court, said Steve Stone, chairman of the local Board of Elections.
“We don’t have the expertise or resources to represent this in federal court,” he said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh recently issued the subpoenas on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the subpoenas and the state board. The subpoenas point to an expanded effort to prosecute illegal voting by people who are not U.S. citizens.
Robert J. Higdon Jr., United States attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, announced on Aug. 24 that 19 foreign nationals were charged with registering to vote or casting ballots illegally because they weren’t U.S. citizens. More than half were indicted by a grand jury in Wilmington, according to a statement from Higdon’s office.
The subpoenas direct the information, which the state BOE estimates would cover more than 20 million documents, be turned over to a Wilmington grand jury by Sept. 25, or before that to a Raleigh-area immigration agent.
The investigation into voting fraud was ongoing, according to Higdon’s statement.
At least one Robeson County Elections Board member believes the subpoenas have nothing to do with voter fraud, and more to do with President Donald Trump.
“I think it’s a fishing expedition to divert attention from collusion currently being investigated,” Tiffany Peguise Powers said.
Locklear said the request puts an undue burden on poor counties, such as Robeson County, and he has heard complaints from other counties.
“It would be simpler to say what are they not looking for,” Locklear said.
Robeson County may not have all the records wanted by the federal prosecutors, Stone said.
Some of the 2013 and 2014 ballots may be in the county landfill, he said. The board is required to hold the ballots and other files for only 22 months. If they are not being held because of a lawsuit or some other legal challenge they go to the landfill.
The county elections staff will determine if the records from 2013-14 are still in the office, and he will ask the U.S. Attorney’s Office for more information about what is being requested, Stone said. In the meantime, the county BOE office will hang on to whatever voting records it has.
In his letter, Keilmanovich acknowledged the logistical burden responding to the subpoena would place on local elections boards as they prepare for the November election.
“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,” Kielmanovich wrote in his letter.
Kielmanovich also wrote that as long as the documents sought are preserved, “we are willing to extend the deadline for compliance until well after the upcoming election cycle is completed and the elected officials take office.”
The local elections office is operating without a permanent supervisor. G.L. Pridgen recently retired, and Tina Bledsoe has the job on an interim basis.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Bradley can be reached at 910-416-5182 or email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.