(Reuters) - North Carolina’s elections board voted on Friday to challenge federal subpoenas seeking years’ worth of voter information from state and local officials, saying the timing, scope and unknown nature of the inquiry were cause for concern.
The U.S. Justice Department on Aug. 31 issued the subpoenas on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the state board and as many as 44 county elections boards in eastern North Carolina.
The demand was “overly broad, unreasonable, vague, and clearly impacts significant interests of our voters,” said Joshua Malcolm, vice chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement.
“This Board will ... not stand idly by and consent to any agency attempting to obtain records and documents that violate the principles of overreach by the federal government, as in this circumstance,” Malcolm said before Friday’s vote during a telephone meeting of the bipartisan board. A transcript of the vote was posted online by the state elections board.
Voting-rights issues have drawn heightened scrutiny across the United States in a congressional election year when Democrats are fighting to regain power in various states and at the national level.
The North Carolina board voted unanimously to authorize the state attorney general’s office to take steps to quash the subpoenas. In a Friday letter, a state assistant attorney general asked a federal prosecutor to withdraw the subpoenas immediately.
Local media said the subpoenas could be connected to a case in the district involving 19 foreign nationals charged last month with illegally voting before and on Nov. 8, 2016. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina declined to comment on what prompted the subpoenas and the vote.
The federal government is seeking documents dating back to 2010 including voter registration application information, forms that voters sign at polling places before casting ballots, records declaring U.S. citizenship and official ballots.
Complying with the subpoenas would mean producing more than 15 million documents from the state board and about 5.6 million ballots from the counties, state elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon said in an email.
“We do not know the impetus behind these subpoenas,” he said.
In a letter on Thursday, a federal prosecutor told state elections board lawyer Joshua Lawson that voters’ actual choice of candidates were not relevant to the inquiry and should be redacted as much as possible. The letter was posted online by the state elections board.
The Justice Department initially requested the documents by Sept. 25, prompting criticism from elections officials who said the demand was ill-timed as they are busy preparing for the Nov. 6 elections.
Federal authorities then said this week they were willing to postpone the deadline until January, provided the elections board vowed to preserve the subpoenaed documents.
Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Matthew Lewis