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Felon voting ban is racially motivated and unconstitutional, NC judges rule

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 3/29/2022 Will Doran, The News & Observer
Dennis Gaddy— executive director of Community Success Initiative, a Raleigh group that helps former prison inmates rejoin society— speaks at a rally July 9, 2021. © Angelica Edwards/The Raleigh News & Observer/TNS Dennis Gaddy— executive director of Community Success Initiative, a Raleigh group that helps former prison inmates rejoin society— speaks at a rally July 9, 2021.

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s law banning many people with felony records from voting after they get out of prison is unconstitutional, a state court ruled Monday.

Until now, state law allowed people with felony convictions to vote only once they finish their sentence. That didn’t only include their prison sentence — it also included probation or parole, which sometimes can last for years after someone is released from prison.

Monday’s ruling, first reported by Carolina Public Press, changes that. Now — pending a potential appeal of the ruling — people with criminal records can vote once they have rejoined society and are no longer behind bars. The judges wrote that “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.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Republican lawmakers, who have defended the law so far, will appeal again.

The law is unconstitutional for generally violating people’s rights, the judges wrote Monday, but also for being explicitly targeted at Black people. Specifically, they wrote that the law “was enacted with the intent of discriminating against African American people and has a demonstrably disproportionate and discriminatory impact.”

State leaders created felon disenfranchisement after the Civil War for explicitly racist purposes, with police rounding up newly freed Black residents all around the state and charging them with bogus crimes in order to stop them from being able to use their new right to vote, according to testimony the judges heard during the trial last year.

A lawyer for the state had said the legislature made several significant changes to the law in the 1970s, spurred on by the civil rights movement, to address its racist nature.

But the judges said in their ruling that some of the decisions made in the 1970s, like keeping people on probation or parole from voting, were racially motivated as well. Furthermore, they said, the mere passage of time doesn’t erase the law’s racist history. They found that “there is no evidence” the law ever would’ve been written, if not for racial motivations.

Lawyers for the civil rights group that sued to strike down the law, Raleigh-based Community Success Initiative, had argued that systemic racism in the present-day criminal justice system means that Black people still disproportionately have their rights taken away by the law.

The News & Observer had previously reported that around 55,000 people might be affected by such a change, after an earlier ruling and subsequent appeal in this same case.

The new standard, that people can vote once they leave prison, is the most common practice nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Two states, Maine and Vermont, let people vote even while in prison. But most have at least some restrictions, with varying degrees of severity.

The ruling was 2-1 by the panel of three superior court judges assigned to the case.

Judge John Dunlow, a Republican from Granville County, dissented. The two in the majority were Judge Keith Gregory, a Wake County Democrat, and Judge Lisa Bell of Mecklenburg County, who is unaffiliated.

A small part of the law was already struck down just before the 2020 elections, The News & Observer reported, on the basis that in some cases the requirement still functioned similar to a Jim Crow-era poll tax — since some people remained on probation or parole simply for being unable to pay court fines or other costs.

But for most people on probation or parole, the voting ban remained in place until this ruling.

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©2022 The News & Observer. Visit at newsobserver.com. Distributed at Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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