There is something especially cruel and nefarious about the willingness of legal officials to take a person’s freedom away just for voting when they weren’t supposed to be.
A 32-year-old Black woman in North Carolina was charged with a felony in 2016 for voting while on probation for another crime. She said she was unaware that she was ineligible to vote but that didn’t stop a district attorney from filing charges against her anyway. Now, that woman is facing even more charges filed by that same district attorney who has been accused of using a racist 19th-century law to prosecute her in the first place.
The Guardian reports that Lanisha Bratcher—a mother of two who is expecting her third child in December—faced up to 19 months in prison for casting a vote while on probation for a felony assault charge. Voting while on parole or probation is illegal in N.C., so Hoke County District Attorney Kristy Newton decided to charge her with a Class I felony for voting while serving a criminal sentence.
Bratcher’s attorney John Carella argued last year that the law used to prosecute Bratcher is both historically and presently racist and meant to disenfranchise Black voters.
From The Guardian:
Carella disputed the original charge by arguing that the law prohibiting those with felony convictions from voting was unconstitutional and racist. In a court filing, he noted that North Carolina’s felon disenfranchisement statute dates back to the late 19th century, when white lawmakers used it openly as a tool to disenfranchise African Americans and diminish their political power after the civil war. A North Carolina Democratic handbook from 1898 speaks of rescuing the “white people of the East” from “negro domination”. In 1903, Charles Aycock, the state’s governor, said the solution to the “negro problem” was to “disenfranchise him”.
Since the 19th century, North Carolina lawmakers have adjusted the law, but its core practice of disenfranchising all felons until they finish their sentence remains intact. Of the 441 people with felony convictions the state suspected of voting in 2016, 68% were black. At the end of 2016, African Americans made up 46% of the 52,000 people on parole or probation and 22% of registered voters in the state.
In Hoke County, three other people were brought up on voter fraud charges along with Bratcher. All of them are Black and it’s possible none of them knew they were ineligible to vote.
The original decision to bring voter fraud charges against Bratcher and three other African American people in Hoke county was unusual. Prosecutors across the state chose not to pursue many cases of illegal voting in 2016, a Guardian review of state data last year found. And nearly a year before she was charged, investigators from the state board of elections wrote a letter to the Hoke county district attorney, Kristy Newton, saying that many felons are not told about restrictions on voting that it was possible Bratcher and the three others just made a mistake, according to documents obtained by the Guardian. The investigators told the prosecutor they did not have the resources to investigate the circumstances of Bratcher’s case. Newton, the district attorney, chose to bring the charges anyway. After the charges were announced, mugshots of Bratcher and the other defendants appeared on the local news. One of the three other men has since pleaded guilty, Carella said, and charges against the two other defendants are still pending.
Last month, the district attorney’s office informed Carella that they will be dropping the original charges against Bratcher, but presented two new indictments to a grand jury citing a different provision of the same law they used to prosecute her the first time. Carella accused the DA of doing this in retaliation for him arguing that racism was weaponized against his client.
“It feels like in some ways she’s being punished or targeted for fighting back,” John Carella said, The Guardian reports. “She’s certainly upset this is still going on. She is trying to move on with her life.”
“In response to being made aware of the explicitly white supremacist history of the law and the unconstitutional way in which it was applied, the DA decided, rather than to dismiss or back off those charges, to essentially double down with more felonies and try to prevent that history and that unconstitutional challenge from being aired in court,” he continued. “The prosecutions serve the same purpose as the original law—to intimidate black voters in North Carolina.”
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