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NC court grants voting rights to those on probation or parole for felonies

Roughly 55,000 more people would now be allowed to vote, based on estimates

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In this Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, file photo, Dennis Gaddy, the co-founder of the Raleigh-based Community Success Initiative, is shown at the door to his office in Raleigh, N.C.

AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

By Will Doran
The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — Judges have restored voting rights to an estimated 55,000 North Carolinians on parole or probation for a felony.

GOP state lawmakers, who were defending the law in court, plan to appeal Monday’s ruling to a higher court. But if the ruling is upheld on appeal, then people convicted of felonies in North Carolina will regain their right to vote once they leave prison.

“Everyone on felony probation, parole or post-supervision release can now register and vote, starting today,” the challengers’ lawyer, Stanton Jones, said in a text message Monday morning after the ruling came down.

Most U.S. states allow people with felony records to regain their voting rights at some point after leaving prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some have the same rules North Carolina had until Monday’s ruling, requiring people to first finish their probation or parole. But a larger number have the rules that the judges have now switched North Carolina to, with people regaining their rights as soon as they leave prison.

It’s the biggest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina since the 1960s, said Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Durham civil rights group Forward Justice and a lawyer for the challengers in this case.

“Our biggest quarrels in this state have been over what groups of people have a voice at the ballot box to be included in ‘We the People,’” Atkinson said at a press conference Monday, later adding: “Today, we enlarged the ‘we’ in ‘We the people.’”

The law’s challengers argued that felon disenfranchisement laws were explicitly created to stop Black people from voting in the years after the Civil War and coincided with a widespread campaign to accuse newly freed Black people of felonies — troubling trends, they said, which have continued into the current day.

Jones said in his opening arguments in the trial last week, The News & Observer reported, that while Black people make up 21% of North Carolina’s voting-age population, they are 42% of the people whose voting rights have been taken away because of this law — “which is no surprise because that’s exactly what it was designed to do,” he said.

Now, if Monday’s ruling survives on appeal, North Carolina will be the only state in the South to automatically restore voting rights to people after they leave prison.

GOP leaders said Monday that in addition to appealing the ruling, they will also ask for the ruling to be blocked until the appeal is done.

In the meantime, however, the N.C. State Board of Elections said Monday that it would immediately begin updating its website, voter registration forms and other materials to reflect the ruling.

And some advocacy groups are already planning to start educating people with criminal records about the ruling.

“Starting tomorrow, we plan to start a voter registration drive across the state,” said Dennis Gaddy, who founded Community Success Initiative, a Raleigh group that helps former prison inmates rejoin society.

Gaddy’s group was one of several challengers to the law, who said that once people are out of prison, they’ve rejoined society and should have a say in how it’s run. Even if they’re on probation they still can pay taxes and send their kids to school — and thus should be able to vote on the people in charge of spending their taxes or running the schools, they said.

“They can’t advocate for themselves” without being able to vote, Gaddy said. “They can’t advocate for their communities. They can’t advocate for their families.”

In addition to Gaddy’s group, the other challengers in the lawsuit included several individuals on probation or parole and the North Carolina NAACP.

NC NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman said Monday that North Carolina should still go a step further and let all adult citizens vote, even if they’re in prison. Two states, Maine and Vermont, already do that.

“I believe it is immoral to disenfranchise any individual, who is a citizen, the right to vote,” Spearman said. “The states of Maine and Vermont got it right.”

Some other western democracies do allow prisoners to vote as long as they’re citizens, including Israel, Canada and Germany.

In court last week, the lawyer for the GOP lawmakers defending the law, Orlando Rodriguez, said they agreed with the challengers that the law was rooted in racism when first passed in the 1870s. But state lawmakers substantially updated the rules in the 1970s, he said, to make improvements following the civil rights movement.

“This newer history clearly indicates a trajectory toward improving the ability to have the right to vote,” Rodriguez said, noting that some of the changes made in the 1970s had been proposed by Mickey Michaux, a longtime Durham politician and civil rights leader.

After the ruling Monday, Republican Sen. Warren Daniel of Morganton said he didn’t believe the judges had the authority to issue the decision they did. Daniel, who co-chairs the Senate’s committee on election law issues, said the issue of when felons should regain the right to vote is simply a policy debate that shouldn’t be settled in court.

“If a judge prefers a different path to regaining those rights, then he or she should run for the General Assembly and propose that path,” he said in a written statement to The N&O.

He called the decision a “power grab” and added: “Judges aren’t supposed to be oligarchs who issue whatever decrees they think best.”

The ruling itself has not yet been written, but the judges announced their decision Monday morning, saying they had voted 2-1, Carolina Public Press reported.

They were Lisa Bell of Mecklenburg County, Keith Gregory of Wake County and John Dunlow, whose district includes Franklin, Granville, Person, Vance, and Warren counties north of Raleigh. Most trials in North Carolina are only heard by one judge, but constitutional law trials are heard by panels of three Superior Court judges chosen from around the state.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, who was the lead defendant in the case, declined to comment Monday morning. His general counsel, Sam Hayes, called the ruling absurd and said they would appeal, and that in the meantime they would immediately seek to have the ruling put on hold.

Later Monday, Republican legislative leaders’ offices informed Attorney General Josh Stein’s office they had hired an outside attorney to take over defense of the law, saying that the lawyers from Stein’s office had declined to start the appeal process until there was a written ruling to review.

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