POLITICS

She Helped Her Boyfriend Register To Vote. Now She's Going To Prison For It.

The woman, a 66-year-old who works at Walmart, told a federal judge she had no idea her ex-boyfriend wasn't eligible to vote.

A 66-year-old North Carolina woman was sentenced Thursday to two months in federal prison for helping her boyfriend at the time, a noncitizen, vote, even though federal prosecutors conceded she didn’t check a box on his voter registration form indicating he was a citizen.

The woman, Denslo Allen Paige, was the only U.S. citizen charged among a wave of indictments last summer from the office of Robert Higdon, a Trump appointee for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. She is the first among those charged to receive a prison sentence.

Paige, who works at Walmart, told HuffPost in August that she went with her boyfriend to an early voting site shortly before the 2016 election to see if he was eligible to vote because he had been talking a lot about politics. She said she wasn’t sure whether her boyfriend, a legal permanent resident, was eligible to vote, but because she had volunteered as a seasonal poll worker in the past (and was paid a stipend), she figured someone at the polling place would tell him if he was ineligible. When no one stopped him, he voted.

Paige said she never checked a box on the form indicating he was a citizen, but a copy of the form obtained by HuffPost shows the box was checked. At a sentencing hearing Thursday, Sebastian Kielmanovich, an assistant U.S. attorney, said he believed Paige had indeed not indicated her boyfriend was a citizen, according to a transcript obtained by HuffPost. He noted the boyfriend may have even presented a green card to poll workers.

“I believe the statement she made is true that it was left blank, but somebody later checked it. So it’s not just the defendant and Mr. Espinosa; there’s yet a third person who had to have checked ‘Yes’ after the fact; highly concerning, alarming, and the subject of our ongoing review,” Kielmanovich told U.S. District Judge Louise Wood Flanagan.

But even though Kielmanovich believed Paige had not checked the box, he said she “should have known better” because she had spent time as a poll worker. He said Paige and her boyfriend were essentially testing the election system to see what they could get away with.

“They were just trying to get away with it and see what would happen. And it did work because it was registered,” Kielmanovich said.

I wasn’t saying: Go down there and see if you can vote. I wanted to find out if he could. I didn’t know. Denslo Allen Paige

Paige, who pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting voting by a noncitizen, will serve a year of supervised release after her prison sentence and pay a $250 fine. She had faced a maximum prison sentence of five years and up to a $250,000 fine.

Reached by telephone Friday, Paige declined to comment. Jay Todd, a public defender appointed to represent Paige, also declined to be interviewed.

Allison Riggs, a senior voting rights attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in North Carolina, said she believed Paige got a harsher sentence than the others because of her prior work in elections. Still, she said, Higdon is wasting prosecutorial resources in pursuing people like Paige who were clearly confused.

“It’s this witch hunt to sort of throw prison sentences and claim that there’s voter fraud, but it’s never what they actually claim. It’s not instances of mass numbers of noncitizens claiming they can vote,” she said. “She wasn’t trying to steal an election. She was trying to make someone she loved feel empowered. Have his voice heard. Hardly nefarious intent.”

When Paige spoke in court on Thursday, she said she had never been trained about whether legal permanent residents could vote when she was a poll worker.

“The reason it happened is because there was no training about whether or not legal aliens could vote ― never ― all of the elections I’ve ever worked. And I truly didn’t know, being a U.S. citizen myself,” she said. “I wasn’t saying: Go down there and see if you can vote. I wanted to find out if he could. I didn’t know.”

Todd told Flanagan the manual given to volunteer workers contained little information about whether noncitizens could vote. The circumstance with Paige and her boyfriend, he said, was clearly a mistake, not fraud.

Higdon’s prosecution of alleged noncitizen voters is under scrutiny because many of the cases appear to be instances in which someone voted based on confusion or a misunderstanding. Several of the people sentenced so far have been punished with a fine. Some have wondered why Higdon’s office chose to pursue these cases but not evidence of absentee ballot fraud North Carolina officials sent his office in 2017.

Similar absentee ballot fraud is alleged to have occurred in 2018, and state officials are probing whether a new election in the state’s 9th Congressional District could be warranted because of it.

Higdon, who has declined to comment on the plea deals that resulted in a fine, released a statement Friday praising Paige’s sentence. He referred to Paige as an “election official,” even though she was only paid a stipend as a volunteer seasonal poll worker.

Kielmanovich told Flanagan that even though Paige had worked as an election official in the past, she was acting in her capacity as a private citizen during the 2016 incident. Paige, he said, didn’t have authority or access to anything more than a normal person would have.

“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,” he said. “This case is particularly disturbing as the defendant worked for the Board of Elections. My office will do its part to protect the rights of every American citizen to cast their vote freely and to have it counted fairly.”

This story has been updated with comment from Riggs.

CONVERSATIONS