RALEIGH, N.C. — A number of felons, who have been released from prison, or never incarcerated, and registered to vote in North Carolina recently, will still be eligible to vote as the state’s highest judge has ruled.
In a lawsuit challenging whether North Carolina residents convicted for felonies can have their voting rights restored after they are convicted, the state Supreme Court essentially refused to reinstate an order that said any offender could register even if they were no longer in prison. According to court records, this order would have had an impact on approximately 56,000 people still under probation, parole, or other supervision.
In the midst of litigation brought by civil rights groups, ex-offenders and civil rights groups challenging the state law regarding restoration of voting rights, the state Court of Appeals stopped last month’s trial orders on September 3. Those plaintiffs appealed immediately to the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals decision was later rescinded by the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court declared that the Court of Appeals order would not be blocked.
The Supreme Court wrote that this means that a felon who registered between Sept. 23rd and Sept. 3, when the trial judge’s order was in force, can’t be removed form the voting rolls. They “are legally registered voters” until informed otherwise.
The registration process will allow offenders to vote in the fall’s municipal elections. Thursday is the first day of early in-person voting for the October elections. It was not immediately known how many people were actually registered as a result of the Sept. 23, 2003 order.
Plaintiffs in the 2019 lawsuit that resulted in the appeals and orders said Friday’s decision was disappointing, but encouraged those who registered to vote to do so. The lawsuit claims that the current state law regarding restoring voting rights is racist and disproportionately affects Black offenders. It also violates the state constitution.
In a Saturday news release, the plaintiffs stated that they are “now a step closer towards our goal” and, “even in the face of this temporary delay in full justice, we celebrate,” “We are committed to the vision for an equal democracy, unaffected by illegal laws designed to disenfranchise Black citizens in this state.”
Some of the State Republican legislators named in the suit, as well as the State Board of Elections are defendants in the lawsuit, claim the trial court erred with its broad order so close to an electoral election.
“The Supreme Court made it right,” Sen. Warren Daniel, Burke County Republican, and co-chairman for the Senate elections panel, stated on Saturday. “A judge can’t just write a new bill because he/she doesn’t like it.”
Associate Justice Tamara Barringer signed for the court, which consists of four registered Democrats (and three Republicans). The decision was not supported by any legal reasoning.
A person convicted for a felony in North Carolina is prohibited from voting unless he or she has been first restored to citizenship according to law. The 1973 law that established those restoration rules required the “unconditional discharge” of inmates, probationers, parolees, and other individuals.
However, the Aug. 23 order said that election officials cannot refuse voter registration to any convicted felon only on probation or parole. According to a plaintiff’s lawyer, the court’s decision will be the most significant expansion of North Carolina’s voting rights since 1960s. North Carolina has more than 7.1million registered voters.
The legislature was dominated by Democrats at the time the law that lowered the hurdles for ex-felons voting was passed. GOP defendants claimed there was no evidence that today’s law was racially discriminatory.
Trial judges last year ruled that felony offenders could not be denied the right vote if their rights weren’t restored due to unpaid fines and restitution. The Supreme Court affirmed Friday that the rule is still in force.