At about 4 a.m. on Aug. 23, federal agents rousted Jose Solano-Rodriguez from his bed in the suburbs of Raleigh. A couple of hours later, three agents knocked on Hyo Suk George’s door as she fed her rabbits and chickens in rural Columbus County. Jose Ramiro-Torres was at his job at a fencing company near the Outer Banks when his girlfriend called to tell him to come home, where federal agents were waiting. In all, 20 immigrants – two still in pajamas – were rounded up over several days, many of them handcuffed and shackled, and charged with voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election. The sweep across eastern North Carolina was one of the most aggressive voting-fraud crackdowns by a Trump-appointed prosecutor – and also a deliberate choice that demonstrates where the administration’s priorities stand. At the time of the arrests, an organized ballot-tampering effort that state officials had repeatedly warned about was allegedly gearing up in the same part of North Carolina. The operation burst into public view after Election Day in November, when the state elections board, citing irregularities in the mail-in vote, refused to certify the results of the 9th Congressional District race. That seat remains unfilled while state officials investigate.
The decision by U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon to focus his office’s resources on the prosecution of noncitizens rather than the ballot-tampering allegations in Bladen County comes amid a broad push by President Donald Trump and other Republicans to portray illegal voting as a widespread phenomenon that threatens the integrity of American elections.
After the August arrests, Higdon issued subpoenas for millions of records of foreign-born voters from state and local agencies – a request North Carolina officials have said will consume an enormous amount of time and cost millions of dollars. In Texas last week, state officials announced that more than 50,000 noncitizens may have voted in state elections over 22 years, though they subsequently revised those numbers considerably.
A Washington Post examination of the effort in North Carolina found a complicated portrait of who is voting illegally and why – and exposed systemic problems that allowed noncitizens to register and cast ballots, in some cases without knowing they were breaking the law.
All but one of those arrested are legal residents of the United States, including a man from Italy who had passed the citizenship test but had not been sworn in. Four others said they had been urged to vote by campaign workers or election volunteers and did not realize they were breaking the law. So far, the voting-fraud prosecutions have netted minimal penalties: The five defendants who have been sentenced received minimal fines, misdemeanor convictions and no jail time.