Hyo Suk George lived legally in the United States for nearly 20 years before she voted in her first election, coaxed to cast her ballot by an enthusiastic town council member at church.
To register, she presented a green card, Social Security number and driver’s license — proof enough for the elections officials in Columbus County — then voted in 2008, 2010 and 2016.
But on Thursday, George, 70, faced charges of illegal voting from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, for which she might have spent six months in prison. Instead, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle chastised the elections board in Whiteville, letting George go with a $100 fine.
“So they see a green card and say, ‘That’s OK’ because they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Boyle, chief judge of the eastern district of North Carolina. “They ought to be a little smarter than that.”
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Boyle added “maybe as much attention as is focused on illegal voting” could be placed on educating election workers.”
Only U.S. citizens can vote, and a green card grants permanent residency without citizenship.
The judge’s comments came as controversy continues to swirl around the state’s 9th Congressional district, where November results are thought to have been marred by fraudulent absentee ballots.
In 2016, an investigation by the N.C. Board of Elections found that out of 4.8 million people who cast ballots, 508 were ineligible to vote. Most of them were felons on active sentences. One of those, the report said, would have been caught by a Voter ID law.
In August, a district attorney in Alamance County dismissed five felony charges against people voting while on probation, having them plead to misdemeanor charges and complete community service.
In court in Raleigh on Thursday, federal public defender Sherri Alspaugh said George never intended to vote illegally, having had little exposure to the system.
George first came to the United States from Korea in 1989 and has held a green card since 1995, working in both housekeeping and fast food, Alspaugh said. Much of her time is spent caring for an ailing husband, who has prostate cancer, at their home outside Whiteville, a town of roughly 5,400 people.
She took the advice of the town council member and went to register “next to the senior center” in Whiteville, Alspaugh said, adding her client could not remember if she went to the county board or a library. She added there were likely volunteers doing the work.
Alspaugh said George had lost 30 pounds since her arrest.