Keith Sellars and his daughters were driving home from dinner at a Mexican restaurant last December when he was pulled over for running a red light. The officer ran a background check and came back with bad news for Mr. Sellars. There was a warrant out for his arrest.
As his girls cried in the back seat, Mr. Sellars was handcuffed and taken to jail.
His crime: Illegal voting.
“I didn’t know,” said Mr. Sellars, who spent the night in jail before his family paid his $2,500 bond. “I thought I was practicing my right.”
Mr. Sellars, 44, is one of a dozen people in Alamance County in North Carolina who have been charged with voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election. All were on probation or parole for felony convictions, which in North Carolina and many other states disqualifies a person from voting. If convicted, they face up to two years in prison.
While election experts and public officials across the country say there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, local prosecutors and state officials in North Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Idaho and other states have sought to send a tough message by filing criminal charges against the tiny fraction of people who are caught voting illegally.
“That’s the law,” said Pat Nadolski, the Republican district attorney in Alamance County. “You can’t do it. If we have clear cases, we’re going to prosecute.”
The cases are rare compared with the tens of millions of votes cast in state and national elections. In 2017, at least 11 people nationwide were convicted of illegal voting because they were felons or noncitizens, according to a database of voting prosecutions compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Others have been convicted of voting twice, filing false registrations or casting a ballot for a family member.
The case against the 12 voters in Alamance County — a patchwork of small towns about an hour west of the state’s booming Research Triangle — is unusual for the sheer number of people charged at once. And because nine of the defendants are black, the case has touched a nerve in a state with a history of suppressing African-American votes.
Local civil-rights groups and black leaders have urged the district attorney to drop the prosecution, saying that black voters were being disproportionately punished for an unwitting mistake. African-Americans in North Carolina are more likely to be disqualified from voting because of felony convictions; their rate of incarceration is more than four times that of white residents, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization.
“It smacks of Jim Crow,” said Barrett Brown, the head of the Alamance County N.A.A.C.P. Referring to the district attorney, he added, “I don’t think he targeted black people. But if you cast that net, you’re going to catch more African-Americans.”
Mr. Nadolski said that race and ethnicity are not a factor in any case he prosecutes.
SOURCE: Jack Healy
The New York Times