POLITICS

It Doesn’t Matter If They Voted By Mistake. A Trump Appointee In North Carolina Doesn’t Care.

Legal immigrants in North Carolina, and an American citizen, made explainable mistakes. But prosecutors aren't giving them a break and are making an example of them.

It didn’t matter that Daniel Romanowski tried to warn a clerk he might be ineligible to vote. It didn’t matter that the clerk registered him anyway. It didn’t matter that Romanowski left the box on the voter registration form asking if he was a citizen blank.

To Sebastian Kielmanovich, an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina, all that mattered was Romanowski, a Polish immigrant who has held a green card since 2004, voted in two presidential elections and wasn’t a citizen of the United States.

He should have known better, Kielmanovich told a federal judge earlier this month, according to a transcript of the sentencing hearing HuffPost obtained. He should be punished.

The judge agreed. He sentenced Romanowski, who pled guilty to illegal voting, to a year of probation. His sentence included two months of house arrest and a $1,200 fine to be paid out in $100 monthly installments.

Romanowski is one of about 20 legal immigrants being prosecuted for illegally voting in the 2016 election in North Carolina. Many of the incidents appear to be mistakes and misunderstandings, a form filled out incorrectly, a mistaken poll worker. In addition to a criminal sentence, the immigrants could also be deported.

The cases were organized by Robert Higdon, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, a President Donald Trump appointee. So far Higdon’s office has obtained plea agreements from about half of the defendants charged.

He sent one defendant, an American citizen, to prison for accidentally helping her immigrant boyfriend to vote, and he issued a $200 fine to an Italian green card holder who came to the U.S. as a teenager in the 1980s. All of the other defendants have been sentenced to combinations of probation and a fine.

Individuals in the group are receiving sentences on an ongoing basis.   

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and some lawyers question why Higdon has chosen to use scarce prosecutorial resources to pursue these cases when there are more serious crimes in need of attention. And that scrutiny has further intensified amid a scandal in Higdon’s jurisdiction that revealed absentee ballot fraud benefitted a Republican in a congressional race last year.

In an era when President Trump regularly spreads conspiracy theories about voter fraud in the U.S., HuffPost is closely tracking the cases because they underscore what it looks like when prosecutors pursue voter fraud in an aggressive manner.

Higdon’s office declined to comment to HuffPost and a spokesperson pointed to news releases on the office’s website. 

“The right to vote is a precious privilege available only to citizens of the United States,” he said last month after Denslo Allen Paige was sentenced to two months of prison time and a $250 fine for helping her boyfriend, a non-citizen, to register to vote. Even though she had worked as a pollworker, she said he had no idea he was eligible to vote.

“When a non-citizen votes in a federal election it serves to dilute and devalue the vote of American citizens and places the decision making authority of the American electorate in the hands of those who have no right to make those choices,” Higdon’s office said after Paige was sentenced.

Most of the cases receiving sentencing hearings, it appears, were misunderstandings and mistakes made by voters and poll workers. But in February, during a sentencing hearing for Juan Francisco Landeros-Mireles, a Mexican immigrant who has been a lawful permanent resident since 1990, Kielmanovich voiced another concern.

Kielmanovich said he was alarmed by a poll worker who appeared to ask Landeros-Mireles which party he intended to vote for in the 2016 presidential election, something poll workers are not supposed to do.  

“He was asked if he was going to vote Republican or Democrat, and he responded, ‘Para la señora,’ which means in Spanish ‘for the lady.’ Kielmanovich said in court, according to a transcript obtained by HuffPost.

Gerry Cohen, an election law expert in North Carolina and a member of the Wake County Board of Elections, said that if a poll worker asked Landeros-Mireles how he was voting during a general election, that would indeed be improper. But, Cohen said, partisan poll greeters often stand outside a voting place and ask people going inside which party they intend to vote for. Cohen said it could be possible that years later, Landeros-Mireles was confused about who he had spoken with when he went to vote.

Jay Todd, a public defender assigned to represent Landeros-Mireles, told the judge U.S. District Judge James Dever III, a George W. Bush appointee, who has presided over the cases, that his client was signed up to vote by someone else in 2012, shortly before the presidential election. He said Landeros-Mireles believed he was waiting in line for a food pantry when he got registered.

“He’s functionally illiterate in English. The person that he interacted with is the person that filled out the form and instructed him to sign it, and that’s how he was registered,” Todd said.

Both Kielmanovich and Dever said Landeros-Mireles’ ignorance didn’t matter. Dever said it was hard to believe anyone could think they could go to a foreign country and vote there (legal permanent residents pay U.S. taxes and have social security numbers).   

Landeros-Mireles was sentenced to two years probation, including two months house arrest, and a $1,200 fine to be paid out in monthly installments, a similar punishment to Romanowski, the Polish immigrant who also voted illegally unknowingly. While Romanowski is employed, Todd told the judge that Landeros-Mireles’ only income was $900 in disability.

The specific crimes to which Romanowski and Landeros-Mireles pleaded guilty were “strict liability” offenses, which meant prosecutors did not have to show the defendants knew what they were doing was illegal to prove guilt.

Allison Riggs, a senior voting rights attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the sentences both men received were unfair.

“You have one instance of person receiving bad information from a governmental worker doing voter registration, and another where the person is functionally illiterate,” she said in an email to HuffPost. “The sentences seem grossly disproportional to the facts of the case—that is, mistakes made by voters who were both (1) unaware of the illegality and (2) each were casting single votes out of millions in a presidential election.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Dever’s first name. It is James, not William.

CONVERSATIONS