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North Carolina Law Barring Felons from Voting Declared Unconstitutional

March 29, 2022 by Dan McCue
North Carolina Law Barring Felons from Voting Declared Unconstitutional
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)

RALEIGH, N.C. – A North Carolina law banning people with felony records from voting after they’ve served their sentences is unconstitutional, a state court has ruled.

Specifically, the Wake County Superior Court panel held in a 2-1 ruling Monday that N.C.G.S. § 13-1, the North Carolina statute providing for the restoration of voting rights for former felons is unconstitutional because it imposes requirements on the former inmate beyond having completed their jail time.

It continues to prevent them from getting their voting rights back until they also complete their probation, parole, or post release supervision.

Superior Court Judges Lisa Bell and Keith Gregory went on to note that in their view, the law “was enacted with the intent of discriminating against African American people and has a demonstrably disproportionate and discriminatory impact.”

In fact, they said, they couldn’t find a shred of evidence to demonstrate the statute would have been enacted without the motivation of race discrimination.

As a result of its enforcement, the judges said, the law has prevented thousands of people living in North Carolina from casting ballots, “potentially preventing the will of the people from prevailing in elections that affect every aspect of daily life.”

Like many election-related cases litigated in North Carolina of late, the dispute at the heart of the case goes all the way back to the post-Civil War period.

It was during those years that local police arrested newly freed Black residents on phony charges in order to prevent them from exercising their new right to vote.

The law that enabled those arrests remained on the books for nearly a century, and was only amended in the early 1970s as a result of gains made by the civil rights movement.

The problem, in Bell and Gregory’s view, was that the changes didn’t go far enough and that the decision to keep people on probation or parole from voting was as racially motivated as the original law.

“When legislation is enacted that restores the right to vote, thereby establishing terms upon which certain persons are able to exercise their right to vote, such legislation must not do so in a way that imposes unequal terms,” they wrote.

“For the avoidance of doubt, under this injunction, 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,” they said.

Superior Court Judge John Dunlow dissented from everything his two colleagues said.

“Establishing a restoration process that requires convicted felons to complete their terms of imprisonment, probation, parole or post-release supervision before regaining their citizenship rights, including the right to vote, is a valid and legitimate governmental interest,” he said.

State Republican lawmakers, who had defended the bill, have not said whether they plan an appeal.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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