Restrictive Law On Felony Offender Voting Rights Holds Through Primaries

In North Carolina, the current state law only allows people with felony convictions to vote once they have finished all aspects of their sentence; not just the time spent in prison, but also probation or parole, which can last for years. The 1973 law that requires the “unconditional discharge of an inmate, of a probationer, or of a parolee”, has origins in white supremacy and disproportionately affects Black people.

The original law, written after the Civil War, did not allow felony offenders to vote at all. It relied heavily on felon disenfranchisement, which were deliberate efforts by state leaders to silence newly freed Black voters by charging them with bogus crimes, thus taking away their right to vote as dictated by the law at that time.

Spurred by the civil rights movement, this law was changed in 1973 to restore felony offenders’ eligibility to register to vote after parole or probation is completed. Despite the changes made to the law, it still disproportionately affects Black people. In 2019, several civil rights groups and ex-offenders sued legislative leaders and state officials, arguing that the law is unconstitutional.

The case was put before a panel of three judges in August of 2021, who agreed 2-1 to issue a preliminary injunction that allowed more felony offenders to register to vote. The injunction only lasted for ten days, however, as the state Supreme Court blocked the ruling by September. But, any felony offenders who registered to vote during that 10-day span were allowed to remain on voter rolls, the justices later ruled.

It felt like progress was being made recently though when the same panel of judges met and yet again determined that this law was unconstitutional. The judges wrote in the March 28 ruling that “if a person otherwise eligible to vote is not in jail or prison for a felony conviction, they may lawfully register and vote in North Carolina”, essentially making the previous injunction more permanent. 

The panel found that the law was unconstitutional for generally violating people’s rights, however they specified that the law “was enacted with the intent of discriminating against African American people and has a demonstrably disproportionate and discriminatory impact.” 

The judges said in their March ruling that even some of the decisions made in the 1970’s, such as keeping people on parole or probation from being able to register, were racially motivated as well. In fact, the panel said that they found that “there is no evidence” that the law ever would’ve been written if not for racial motivations. 

Much like the first time around, not even a month later the ruling was delayed, this time due to an appeal filed by Republican legislators who are defendants in the lawsuit. They claim there’s no evidence that the law was motivated by discriminatory intent, and that all offenders are treated the same.

On April 5, an NC appeals court temporarily blocked the enforcement of the two-time ruling while arguments were heard by appeals judges, and on April 26, the appeals panel officially delayed the ruling further until after the upcoming May 17 primary election.  

Associated Press reported that the order by the appeals panel has the potential to be heard by the full 15-member appeals court, or could be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Also currently pending is a request from the plaintiffs from the 2019 lawsuit for the state Supreme Court to take over the case.

There are more than 56,000 felony offenders in North Carolina who are on parole or probation; upwards of 56,000 people who live, work, and pay taxes in our community, who currently don’t have a voice in our elections. 

Twice now a panel of judges has ruled that our current law is unconstitutional due to its origins in Reconstruction-era white supremacy and disproportionate effect on Black people. It speaks volumes that Republican lawmakers have fought the efforts to change this law every step of the way.

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