One of several legal permanent U.S. residents from North Carolina charged by the Justice Department with voter fraud was sentenced this week to pay a $200 fine, but the longtime U.S. resident and green card-holder may also be deported.
Alessandro Cannizzaro, a 47-year-old father of two who has been in the U.S. since 1985, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of voting by an alien. Cannizzaro, who is originally from Italy, was registered to vote as a Republican and cast a ballot in 2016.
Under sentencing guidelines, Cannizzaro would face incarceration for zero to six months. Both the government and defense said they were open to a sentence of probation, but the judge decided to impose only a fine.
Cannizzaro told U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle that he’d applied for citizenship back in 2003 and had passed the test, but was awaiting his chance to be sworn in and never heard back from immigration officials. The government said Cannizzaro was told he needed to be fingerprinted in 2005 as part of his application for citizenship but didn’t show up.
Cannizzaro’s lawyer said he never received the letter telling him to come in and be fingerprinted. He ended up voting in 2016.
“When my family went to vote, I joined them to vote and I never checked the status of me if I was okay to vote,” Cannizzaro said, according to a transcript of his sentencing purchased by HuffPost. “So I’m here today to take full responsibility, and I’m deeply sorry.”
Federal prosecutors almost never prosecute cases like Cannizzaro’s, said David Iglesias, a U.S. attorney during the Bush administration who was fired after Republicans complained that he wasn’t bringing in enough voter fraud cases.
Cannizzaro’s case “is the type of de mimimis case that U.S. Attorneys almost never prosecute because they have to worry about prioritizing the more than 4,000 federal criminal statutes they are tasked with enforcing,” Iglesias told HuffPost in an email.
“The defendant was here legally for 33 years, committed no crime, got married, raised 2 kids and substantially complied with the naturalization process. But for getting fingerprinted and being sworn in he would have been a U.S. Citizen,” Iglesias continued. “This is precisely the type of case that should be resolved administratively by allowing the defendant to finish the naturalization process.”
“Justice isn’t getting convictions, justice is about doing the right, and obtaining fair result in light of all the circumstances,” he wrote.
Cannizzaro’s case and those of 19 other immigrants, attracted national attention after federal prosecutors blasted out a press release in August announcing the criminal charges. The same officials have subpoenaed millions of voting records from North Carolina, leading some to speculate they are preparing a deeper probe of noncitizen voting. Several studies and investigations have shown that while illegal voting sometimes does occur, it is uncommon and not a widespread problem.
Interviews and documents obtained by HuffPost indicate that some of those facing charges may not have known they were ineligible to register to vote. One man did not say he was a U.S. citizen on his registration form and another woman did not sign hers.
“The defendant was here legally for 33 years, committed no crime, got married, raised 2 kids and substantially complied with the naturalization process. But for getting fingerprinted and being sworn in he would have been a U.S. Citizen.”
According to the sentencing transcript, Boyle, the judge, asked Cannizzaro if he still intended to try to become a naturalized citizen, and Cannizzaro said he did. Boyle also said he believed that Cannizzaro showed “substantial compliance” with the law, even though he didn’t take the oath of citizenship.
“I mean, he didn’t take the oath, but he’s probably unique ― maybe not ― but probably unique in the fact that he years ago pursued naturalization and apparently satisfied all the prerequisites to naturalization other than the administration of the oath, which would be materially different from somebody who just lied categorically about it,” Boyle said.
Cannizzaro’s attorney Elliot Abrams declined to comment on his client’s sentencing.
It’s unclear whether Cannizzaro’s guilty plea will make him a target for deportation. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon of the Eastern District of North Carolina did not respond to a request for comment on whether the office had referred the case to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Federal law clearly says that any noncitizen who votes can be deported, said David Leopold, an immigration attorney with Ulmer & Berne who is not involved in the case. Leopold thinks ICE is likely to pursue deportation. Cannizzaro’s green card and longtime residency in the United States may make him eligible for deportation cancellation, Leopold said, but he would have to appear before an immigration judge to make his case.
Joyce Vance, who served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 2009 to 2017 under President Barack Obama, said the case was a poor use of a federal prosecutor’s resources.
“There are serious crimes out there, and here resources are being used on misdemeanor voting fraud when resources are not being allocated to voter suppression or just to other more serious crimes in general,” she said.
“There are serious crimes out there, and here resources are being used on misdemeanor voting fraud when resources are not being allocated to voter suppression or just to other more serious crimes in general.”
Yet Higdon, the Trump-appointed federal prosecutor whose office oversaw the case, earned high praise from a group of congressional Republicans this week, who wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions praising Higdon’s action against immigrants who voted in the U.S. illegally.
“The work by Mr. Higdon should be admired and duplicated across the nation; even just one illegal vote by a noncitizen violates the rights and privileges of each lawful American voter,” the letter read. The Republican lawmakers urged Sessions to “dedicate all resources reasonable and necessary to protect our ballots from fraud or other illegality.”
Trump has falsely claimed that millions of people illegally voted in the 2016 election, a wildly inaccurate claim that nearly half of all Republicans believe. As Boyle referenced at Cannizzaro’s sentencing, nearly 5 million people voted in North Carolina in 2016.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Gabriel Diaz, the federal prosecutor representing the U.S. government at sentencing, told Boyle that an investigation by the North Carolina State Board of Elections had “determined approximately 140 individuals who were not eligible to vote did vote” in 2016.
Diaz told the court that he believed the state board of elections had cross-referenced its information with information in the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles.