Best-case scenario: Robert Higdon and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement owe North Carolina a lengthy explanation. Worst-case scenario: They owe us all an apology.
Such is the confusion surrounding this month’s hailstorm of subpoenas from Higdon and ICE, a sweeping intrusion by federal officials that has state election officials bewildered and incensed.
Higdon is the U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s eastern district, a Republican appointed by President Trump last year. Of course, Higdon’s boss once commissioned a now-defunct task force  to prove, without success, some sort of massive voter fraud scheme in the United States, allegations with all the substance of a puff of smoke.
And ICE needs no introduction, a federal agency charged with overseeing immigration enforcement that, in recent years, has carved out a disturbingly predatory role , lurking in food processing plants , menacing institutes of higher education , and frightening schoolchildren .
ICE roamed seemingly unchecked even in the Obama years, but the Trump administration – one that looks kindly upon the punitive separation of children and parents at the border – has surely emboldened the feared federal agency.
This month, Higdon and ICE issued high-handed, nigh impossible, demands for state and local election leaders to cough up documents pertaining to millions of North Carolina voters before the election.
Federal officials are also ordering the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles to swiftly turn over eight years worth of records, seeking voter registration forms from foreign-born applicants and individuals who aren’t U.S. citizens. No, Mr. Higdon, the line at the DMV starts way back there.
Are Higdon and company fretting over Putin? Hanging chads? Paper cuts? Who knows?
If you’re looking for transparency, you won’t find any here, although the case seems connected to a series of grand jury indictments this summer, which charged 19 foreign individuals with voting illegally in North Carolina.
And while grand jury and law enforcement investigations often elude the public eye, in this case, Higdon and ICE have raised far more questions about themselves and their motives than any implicit threats to our voting process.
It boggles the mind how this summer’s indictments could justify the kind of massive panic set off this month by the demand for North Carolina voting records. And if it does, federal officials should explain themselves, otherwise the subpoenas, justifiably or not, smell like a week-old diaper.
Days ago, prosecutors eased their preposterous document dump , giving the state until after the Nov. 6 election to produce the records in question. They also backed off on an inappropriate demand that the state transmit unredacted voting records that may have allowed the federal government to view citizens’ voting choices, a deplorable invasion of privacy.
Regardless of these officials’ intentions, this stunning reach into North Carolina voting booths does not exist in a vacuum. It comes at a tumultuous time, with officials preparing for an election that’s just weeks away, one with the capacity to dramatically alter the balance of power in North Carolina and beyond.
It’s worth asking what impact the federal probe will have on voters of color, those who deserve to go to the polls without the nebulous menace put off by this disarray.
Attorney General Josh Stein and Democratic members of Congress rightfully objected to the recent subpoenas, but GOP representatives have been mostly silent, despite the fact that the state’s elections board – composed of both Republicans and Democrats – swiftly denounced Higdon and ICE’s questionable mandate this month.
Yet a denunciation isn’t enough.
Just as the federal government seeks to scrutinize North Carolina voting records, every single official involved with this subpoena should face scrutiny as well.
What’s the justification for these sweeping subpoenas? Who made the call and under what pretense?
Of the roughly 4.8 million who voted in North Carolina in 2016, there were only about 500 ballots cast by ineligible voters, the state has reported. In most cases, they were cast by residents with a past felony conviction, individuals who may not have known their criminal history precluded them from voting. And there’s not a single race where the outcome was effected in North Carolina.
Yet to root out the “scourge” of voter fraud, state and federal Republicans continue to seek new voter ID provisions via a scurrilous constitutional amendment this fall , an obstruction that just so happens to chiefly obstruct voters who may not cast ballots in their favor.
The GOP’s voter ID crusade may have nothing to do with Higdon and ICE’s ham-fisted probe. Indeed, political intent may be misconstrued when it comes to law enforcement intrusion shortly before an election. You there, in the curtains , I see you, Mr. Comey.
But if this month’s voting inquisition is above-board, federal officials should provide swift answers, lest the residents of North Carolina concoct their own.