A three-judge panel in North Carolina ruled 2-1 Monday that the state must restore voting rights for thousands of residents with felonies. Under the current law, residents are barred from voting until they have been fully discharged from probation, parole or suspended sentence.
The ruling, by a panel of the state Superior Court in Raleigh, may very well make North Carolina the lone state in the South to automatically restore voting rights to people after they complete their prison terms, according to the Washington Post.
Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, a civil rights group in Durham, N.C., said the decision was “the largest expansion of voting rights in this state since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
He and other lawyers originally filed a lawsuit more than a year ago challenging the law. In 2020, the same panel of judges ruled that the law’s requirement of people with felonies having to pay monetary obligations first was unenforceable because voting would be linked to financial ability, according to the Associated Press.
The ruling has not been put in writing. North Carolina Republicans plan to appeal the decision to a higher court.
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Here is more on the story, per the Post:
Lawyers representing plaintiffs who oppose the law argued in court last week that such policies were weaponized to prevent Black people from voting after the Civil War in an effort to stifle their political power, according to the Carolina Public Press.
Challengers of the law also claimed that in many cases, disenfranchisement persists because of an inability to pay court fees. In other instances, North Carolinians convicted of felonies are placed under community supervision sentences, without imprisonment, while paying taxes, and are still barred from voting during the entire probation period.
Other challengers include several people on probation or parole, and civil rights groups such as the North Carolina NAACP and the Community Success Initiative, a Raleigh group that helps former felons reenter society.
“Starting today, if a person can just say I am not in jail or prison for a felony conviction, then that person can register and they can vote freely,” said Stanton Jones, an attorney representing the challengers.
That simple change will lead to 56,000 people being empowered, Jones added.
Plaintiffs argued in court that felon disenfranchisement “overwhelmingly” affects Black Americans, who represent about 20 percent of the state’s voting population, and 40 percent of those prevented from voting while on probation or parole, according to the criminal complaint.
Lawyers for the defense did not contest these numbers but argued that these rates are caused by disparities in the criminal justice system, not by the law that determines when people can vote again.
Orlando Rodriguez, a lawyer for the Republican lawmakers, said they won’t defend the law’s “shameful” history, but that it has been significantly improved since then. He argued that previously, the law imposed a heavy burden on people who requested their rights be restored after completing their parole or probation process, while the process is now automatic, according to the News & Observer.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University says that 28 states bar citizens from voting because of prior convictions. Millions of Americans are excluded from voting as a result.
Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of voting rights and elections for the Brennan Center, told the Post that much progress has been made in reversing these types of laws. Nearly a dozen states, including Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, California, Nevada, Colorado, Louisiana and Washington, have moved toward the restoring of voting rights to felons. The process of doing so varies state to state.
Washington, D.C., Maine and Vermont are states where people with felony convictions never lose the right to vote—even while incarcerated.
Comparatively, after residents in Florida voted in 2018 to restore voting rights to people with felonies, the state’s GOP undermined the law by requiring them to pay outstanding court fines and fees first.