Following a March ruling from the Wake County Superior Court, the North Carolina Court of Appeals officially expanded voting rights on July 27 to tens of thousands of North Carolinians with felony convictions who are not in jail or prison.
The 2-1 ruling in Community Success Initiative v. Moore said the denial of voting rights to people on probation, parole or post-release supervision violates N.C. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because the denial discriminates against Black individuals and restricts all people on felony supervision from their voting rights.
The court also decided the statute violated the Free Elections Clause of the N.C. Constitution by preventing elections that would accurately represent the will of the people.
Before the ruling was implemented by the Court of Appeals, people with felony convictions who were not in jail or prison could not vote under a 1973 general statute. Once all sentences and post-release supervision, probation or parole were completed, voting rights were automatically restored.
According to evidence cited in Community Success Initiative v. Moore, more than 56,000 people who have been denied voting rights under the almost 50-year-old statute will become newly eligible.
Traci Burch, a political science professor at Northwestern University and expert witness in the case, estimated at least 20 percent of the people denied voting rights would vote in the next election.
This percentage would be at least 11,000 people, a number that would be enough to substantially impact future local and statewide elections, according to Burch.
The case is being appealed to the N.C. Supreme Court by lawmakers, including N.C. House of Representatives Speaker Timothy Moore, R-Cleveland, who is the named defendant in the case.
Marques Thompson, a lead regional managing organizer at nonprofit Democracy North Carolina., said he was disappointed that the decision was appealed at all.
“If we really believe in democracy, then we should support as many voices being able to be heard as possible,” Thompson said. “It really makes us all better when we can hear from the greatest and the least of the people in every situation, and especially people that we don’t usually prioritize.”
People of color, especially Black people, were disproportionately denied their voting rights before the decision.
The court said the ruling in the 1970s to preserve the denial of voting rights "was itself independently motivated by racism."
According to evidence cited in the case, Black men make up just over 9 percent of the voting-age population in the state, but about 37 percent of those were denied voting rights because of parole, probation or post-release supervision.
While registered Black voters make up 21 percent of North Carolina’s total electorate, more than 42 percent of people previously denied voting rights because of a felony conviction were Black.
The number of Black individuals denied voting rights on community supervision relative to overall voter registration was three times as high as white individuals on community supervision under the statute.
Barbara Foushee, a Carrboro Town Council member andChapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP Executive Committee member, said the issue is more about racism in the criminal justice system than denying voting rights to people with felony convictions.
"Black folks are always disproportionately impacted about something," she said. "I think all that goes back to racism. I feel like that's at the root of a lot of our issues — driving while Black, sleeping while Black, walking while Black, jogging while Black, the list goes on and on."
Foushee said change only comes through electing representatives and judges who can fight for underrepresented communities, including people of color.
She said she has tried to use her network and a program through her church to promote political participation in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community.
"Sometimes folks miss that opportunity to vote these folks in that can help effectuate the kind of change in the criminal justice system that we so desperately need," Foushee said. "I think it's all about elections."
Lack of education and confusion about eligibility also factored into the court decision. Even in states where voting rights were automatically restored upon the completion of a sentence, like North Carolina, voters and officials often don't understand voting restoration.
According to testimony from an N.C. Department of Public Safety official during the trial, some of the forms the DPS provides to people with felony convictions contradict one another. The official, DPS’s deputy director of community supervision, testified that she did not know if people under felony supervision could vote.
Kate Fellman, the founder and executive director of You Can Vote, a N.C. voting rights nonprofit, said the best way to spread the word about the rights of people with felony convictions is to interact with them directly.
"Every day we're out doing community work, we run into folks who tell us they can't vote," she said. "When you dig a little deeper, it's because of a misconception or preconceived notion that once you have a felony on your record, you can never vote again."
Education through partnerships with other nonprofits and community services is crucial to helping otherwise marginalized people understand what their rights are, Fellman said.
Echoing Fellman's sentiment, Thompson said Democracy N.C. works with places like food banks to register new voters and inform them of their voting rights.
Thompson added that a potential overturning of the decision by the N.C. Supreme Court would not only further confuse these new voters, but actively harm them.
"It would be painful for this population that already could feel like we as a society are mistreating them or giving up on them or that we don't care about their situation," Thompson said. "The reason why we have some of these nonprofits to engage with issues is because we don't always give them the services that they need to succeed."
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