More than 55,000 North Carolina residents were granted the right to vote. Until they weren’t.
On Sept. 3, 11 days after the Wake County Superior Court ruled to restore voting rights to North Carolina residents on felony probation or parole, the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned that decision, and the N.C. Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals decision Friday. The case was brought by the Community Success Initiative against N.C. Speaker of the House, Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.
The appeal of the ruling strips them of their eligibility to vote, effective immediately.
Uncertainty around voting
Confusion continues to surround felons’ ability to return to their communities and vote. And the reversal of the ruling on CSI v. Moore has only caused that uncertainty to grow, said Joselle Torres, the communications manager at Democracy North Carolina.
Torres said the initial ruling was a victory for voter rights, which her organization had been fighting to gain for a long time. When the ruling was announced, Democracy N.C. updated its voter registration resources and was excited to register new voters, she said.
The N.C. Supreme Court granted residents who registered during the 11-day window an exception to the overturned ruling, but uncertainty lingers among voters, Torres said.
“It really causes additional confusion in the midst of voter registration efforts before a large municipal election cycle and puts the folks that are returning citizens in a place where it's even more unknown than before the ruling went down,” Torres said.
Katelin Kaiser, a voting rights legal fellow at Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said citizens’ voting rights are restored once they are off probation and parole, but the issue is determining when they get those rights back.
Ramifications of that uncertainty
Kaiser said there is no law or mandate for courts to tell felons they are free to vote when they are granted that right.
Due to North Carolina’s strict liability voting law, Kaiser said residents with a current felony are criminalized and given another felony conviction if they vote before their sentence is over. Since some felons are unsure when their rights are restored, many fear going to the polls and risking another sentence, she said.
“Voting is important to be a habit, and once you’re denied that right, it has a tremendous impact on other areas of a person’s life,” Kaiser said.
In addition to instilling a fear to vote, Kaiser said being denied this right revokes citizens’ political and economic rights and their ability to have a say in their communities.
Race and the right to vote
This denial of the right to vote is not foreign to North Carolina.
Chris Cooper, a political science and public affairs professor at Western Carolina University, said voting rights has been an issue of contention in the state for decades.
Felon disenfranchisement is among other issues that have long plagued the state, including redistricting, absentee balloting and issues related to race, he said.
The North Carolina Constitution still includes a voter literacy test, which was established in 1900 amid the Jim Crow era to disable Black voters from going to the polls. Literacy tests were outlawed with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and many are working to eliminate that section of the constitution today.
Kaiser said the N.C. General Assembly altered its constitution to disenfranchise people in response to the Reconstruction Amendments (Amendments 13-15) to the U.S. Constitution, which gave people of color equal voting rights.
“I don't think there's any way to disentangle conversations about race from conversations about voting rights, particularly when it involves voting disenfranchisement,” Cooper said.
Theodore M. Shaw, a professor of law at UNC and director of its Center for Civil Rights, said it has been a struggle for voting rights advocates nationally to restore rights to disenfranchised voters of color.
Today, since the majority of the imprisoned are people of color, these changes have the greatest impact on them, Renee Price, chairperson of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, said.
“You should be entitled to your rights as a human being as a United States citizen, and you're still a citizen of the United States even if you have been incarcerated," Price said.
Shaw said depriving individuals of the right to vote while on parole and even afterward, in some cases, has been an issue across the country.
The language in the North Carolina Constitution that denies these voters this right, he said, is parallel to the language in the federal constitution.
While the 15th Amendment says that no one can be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, Shaw said states can create their own laws that expand on this concept — such as in the ruling of CSI v. Moore.
“In many of the states … there are punishments for those who are convicted of felonies that do lead to the deprivation of what would otherwise be both constitutionally and statutorily protected rights,” Shaw said.
This fight in North Carolina is representative of the national fight to restore voting rights to all citizens.