Meet The Lone US Attorney Leading Trump’s Non-Citizen Voting Crusade

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February 22, 2019 6:00 am
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There’s nothing to suggest that non-citizen voting was ever a pet interest of Bobby Higdon’s.

During the almost quarter-century he spent as a federal prosecutor in North Carolina, Higdon’s main priority was drug crimes. In his subsequent brief stint in private practice at a Raleigh firm, he focused on white collar criminal defense.

But since becoming U.S. attorney for the Eastern District in September 2017, Higdon has led the crusade against non-citizen voting. No other U.S. attorney in the country has been as aggressive in pursuing non-citizen voting cases.

Rather than unearthing mass, intentional ballot fraud by undocumented immigrants, Higdon has turned up fewer than two dozen cases in which poll-worker or voter misunderstanding or error caused someone to vote who shouldn’t have done so.

North Carolina attorneys and voting rights advocates told TPM they’re dismayed that prosecutorial resources are being devoted to this non-issue. But there’s no simple explanation for why Higdon, among all 93 U.S. attorneys in the country, has been at the vanguard on non-citizen voting.

“Bobby has always been a diehard, unapologetic conservative Republican and proud of it,” a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked alongside Higdon in the Western District told TPM. “He also doesn’t care whether what he’s doing is popular or not. He feels very committed to using the power of the US attorney’s office in an aggressive way if he feels it is the ‘right’ thing to do.”

Higdon, the attorney added, favors a “scorched-earth” approach to prosecutions and sees the world through a “very stark political lens”: “It’s good/bad, black/white.”

Higdon’s office declined TPM’s repeated requests for comment. Higdon has previously said that any non-citizen voting in a federal election “serves to dilute and devalue the vote of American citizens.”

Trump helped drum up fears about undocumented immigrants turning up en masse for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, even pushing the unfounded claim that 3 million “illegal” ballots cost him the popular vote. Rooting out illegal activity by non-citizens became a priority of his handpicked attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

At the state level, it’s Higdon who has taken up the non-citizen voting mantle. Just a few months before Higdon’s confirmation, North Carolina’s state election board released its audit report finding 41 non-citizen voters among the 4.8 million who cast ballots in the 2016 presidential contest. Higdon’s office enthusiastically pursued those cases.

In August 2018, Higdon announced the fruits of his labors: 19 foreign nationals were charged with voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election, and one U.S. citizen was charged with helping a non-citizen register to vote under false pretenses. The press release spoke of severe penalties—years-long imprisonment, lofty fines in the tens of thousands.

As those cases have gone to trial over the past year, a different picture has emerged. 72-year-old Diudonne Sofils, a Haitian immigrant and legal permanent resident of the U.S. since 1976, pleaded guilty to voting and was sentenced to 12 months’ probation and a $25 fine. Korean native Hyo Suk George presented her green card while attempting to vote, not realizing it was against the law. A judge aghast that a poll worker failed to intervene fined George only $100.

Denslo Allen Paige, 66, was sentenced to two months in prison and a $250 fine for helping her Mexican citizen boyfriend register to vote. At her hearing, Paige, a Walmart employee and volunteer seasonal poll worker, said she’d never been trained on whether legal permanent residents could vote, as HuffPost reported.

The cases showed defendants confused by the U.S. voting system and given misinformation by poll staffers or loved ones. Most are legal permanent residents. Several spoke little English.

The North Carolina attorneys who spoke to TPM said Higdon is going to extreme lengths to criminalize needle-in-a-haystack incidents that are, essentially, just mistakes.

“What this tells me about Higdon is he’s a political ideologue,” Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told TPM. “These are not people trying to steal elections. This is not mass voter fraud.”

Higdon also issued subpoenas for all recent voting records to 44 counties in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, alarming state election officials who complained that the sweeping request put severe strain on their resources and raising fears that federal intervention so close to Election Day would discourage voting.

The US attorneys in North Carolina’s two other federal districts have not pursued these cases with the same enthusiasm, nor have their counterparts in other states.

“They’re not doing it elsewhere in the country,” said Ted Arrington, a voting rights expert who served for 12 years as a Republican member on the Mecklenberg County Board of Elections. “In places like New Mexico, where you have a lot more non-citizens, especially Hispanics, the federal attorney isn’t pursuing this. There simply isn’t any evidence to indicate that this is a problem you should be spending a lot of time on.”

So what gives?

Unsurprisingly in the perennial swing state, suspicions of political motives have begun to emerge, though the evidence is less than conclusive.

“Bobby is quite ambitious politically,” said one veteran North Carolina attorney who requested to speak on background. “There are folks who believe that his role model is George Holding, who rode the prosecution of Gov. Easley to Congress, and that Bobby would like to repeat that path.”

Higdon’s former colleague in the Western District said that’s only one side of the coin.

“He was old-school when it came to maximizing the punishment,” the attorney said, noting that others in the Western District shared that approach. “I would say, ‘we’re going after the mules, why aren’t we going up the chain and trying to get to the kingpins?’ He had this mentality where it was more scorched-earth. He was a big believer in that whole zero-tolerance, get the maximum punishment, instead of tailoring plea offers that were more reasonable and fair. He was always proud of going after record-setting type sentences.”

The attorney wasn’t surprised that Higdon was taking a similar tack in pursuing non-citizen voter fraud.

“Other U.S. attorneys are taking a more balanced approach, a more proportional approach, where he’s just wanting to go push the envelope,” he said.

Higdon is a Greensboro native who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in both the Eastern and Western districts after graduating from Wake Forest University Law School—reportedly always keeping the U.S. attorney role in his sights. In his most high-profile case, Higdon served as co-lead counsel in the 2012 trial of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who was accused of using campaign funds to cover up an affair with his pregnant mistress. The case ended in mistrial.

The following year, Higdon was removed as chief criminal prosecutor for the office after a federal appeals court expressed grave concerns that prosecutors under his leadership had withheld evidence, as the Raleigh News & Observer reported. Higdon was shifted to a different post.

He spent 2015-2017 at the Raleigh firm of Williams Mullen, before being nominated by Trump, on the recommendation of Republican Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, to serve as U.S. attorney. After his confirmation by the Senate, Tillis praised Higdon’s “decades of prosecutorial experience,” while Burr predicted he would “serve the people of North Carolina with honor.”

Since assuming his post, Higdon’s office has received a slew of negative headlines for its zealous pursuit of non-citizen voting. But that storyline has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the scandal in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. The North Carolina Board of Elections on Thursday voted to hold a new election after a trial revealed that GOP candidate Mark Harris knowingly worked with a Republican operative who engaged in brazen absentee ballot fraud in Bladen County.

As the Washington Post reported, Higdon’s office was repeatedly tipped off about the ballot irregularities back in 2017—and did nothing. Voting rights experts say this sort of long-running, intentional, effective scheme to defraud black and Native voters is the kind of issue federal prosecutors should be focused on.

“Rather than trying to root out the real problems that create among voters a sense of distrust in the electoral system—which is the stuff McCrae Dowless is doing—[Higdon’s] going to go after people who either made a mistake or were following directions from poll workers who were poorly trained,” Riggs, of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said.

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