Formerly incarcerated North Carolinians can’t vote while serving felony sentences

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Angelica Edwards/

Thousands of formerly incarcerated North Carolina residents serving felony sentences will no longer be able to vote.

A trial court ruling had made them eligible to vote in the midterm elections last November, but on Friday the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned that order.

The State Board of Elections said later Friday it has updated voter registration applications to comply. Now, once again, people serving a felony sentence cannot register or vote until their sentence ends, including any period of probation, parole or post-release supervision.

Elections officials will use lists of people serving felony sentences to cancel registrations of people who are now ineligible, the board said.

Arguments in the case, known as Community Success Initiative v. Moore, centered on whether the state law that delineates how people’s voting rights are restored is constitutional and whether it had discriminatory intent.

The high court reversed the trial ruling Friday 5 to 2, split along partisan lines, with Republican justices in favor of reversal and Democrats against.

For the majority, Justice Trey Allen wrote that it is “not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process.”

“The General Assembly did not engage in racial discrimination or otherwise violate the North Carolina Constitution by requiring individuals with felony convictions to complete their sentences — including probation, parole, or post-release supervision — before they regain the right to vote,” Allen wrote.

Republicans flipped control of the court in the November elections, flipping two Democratic-held seats and giving their party back a majority on the state’s high court. Allen was one of the newly elected justices.

Writing in the dissent, Justice Anita Earls said Friday’s ruling “will one day be repudiated on two grounds. First, because it seeks to justify the denial of a basic human right to citizens and thereby perpetuates a vestige of slavery, and second, because the majority violates a basic tenant of appellate review by ignoring the facts as found by the trial court and substituting its own.” Justice Michael Morgan joined in the dissent.

A reversal of the ruling is unlikely, Western Carolina University politics professor Chris Cooper told The News & Observer.

In politics “there’s always a way,” but “I think the most likely scenario certainly is that this ruling will hold,” even though challengers are “probably not gonna go quietly into the night on this issue.

“But at least for now, this is the law of the state.”

Right to vote restored after probation

Under North Carolina law, people serving a felony sentence must complete any period of supervision and pay all legal financial obligations before they can vote.

That was challenged in a 2019 lawsuit by nonprofits that argued that this disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated voters was unconstitutional, that it disproportionately affected Black residents, and that voters should not have to wait to be eligible to vote but should have those rights restored after leaving prison or jail.

The original lawsuit was filed against government officials including House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate leader Phil Berger and the State Board of Elections. Moore said Friday, in a written statement, that Friday’s ruling “ensured that our constitution and the will of the people of North Carolina are honored.”

“For years plaintiffs and activist courts have manipulated our Constitution to achieve policy outcomes that could not be won at the ballot box,” Berger said in a statement. “Today’s rulings affirm that our Constitution cannot be exploited to fit the political whims of left-wing Democrats.”

They were referencing this case as well as two other high-profile rulings handed by the same court on voter ID and gerrymandering.

Shakita Norman, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who was able to vote in 2022, said in a written statement that the ruling “is just plain wrong.”

“If you’re telling us we can no longer vote, are you also telling us that we don’t have to pay taxes?” Norman said. “This isn’t right. This makes us feel like we aren’t even American citizens. We’ve had a long fight and to see our hard-fought victory taken away because of the politics of people is frustrating and sickening. Why can’t we have a voice in how things are governed?”

The people affected are disproportionately African American, said Brittany Cheatham, communications manager for Forward Justice, one of the organizations that filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs.

“Stripping away the right to vote from over 56,000 people who had finally gotten their voices back clearly demonstrates just how dedicated our officials are to silencing the people whose rights they are supposed to protect,” Dennis Gaddy, director of the Community Success Initiative, said in a written statement. “It shows their commitment to knowingly and willingly upholding racist laws and practices designed specifically to disenfranchise Black voters.”

In May 2022, the state Supreme Court, still controlled by Democrats agreed to take over the lawsuit rather than wait for an appeals court to determine if the superior court was right to loosen restrictions. In February the high court, now controlled by Republicans, heard arguments.

“People convicted of felonies must pick up the cost of appointing counsel, court costs, fines, any supervision needs and restitution,” said Daryl Atkinson, attorney and co-director for Forward Justice. “Failure to pay results in a multi-year extension of their disenfranchisement and their denial of the right to vote upwards to eight years.”

Republican justices parried this point, saying that it seemed Atkinson was assuming that the right to vote was indisputable when that was open to interpretation.