Felon voting supporters make pitch to N.C. Supreme Court

Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai

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  • Supporters of felon voting in North Carolina submitted their opening written arguments to the N.C. Supreme Court. The court's decision could affect 56,000 potential voters.
  • Critics say attacks on North Carolina's felon voting law are misguided. The N.C. Constitution bans felon voting, and the disputed 1973 law simply implemented that constitutional ban.

Supporters of felon voting in North Carolina have submitted their opening written arguments to the N.C. Supreme Court. Those arguments arrive as state election officials prepare for as many as 56,000 newly registered felons for the November election.

As plaintiffs filed their opening brief Wednesday in a case titled Community Success Initiative v. Moore, five separate friend-of-the-court briefs also arrived at the state Supreme Court. One brief represented governments of 14 “blue” states and the District of Columbia.

An order from a split N.C. Court of Appeals panel determined that felons who have completed active prison time have been eligible since July 27 to register for the general election.

Plaintiffs’ new brief cites the history of the state’s ban on felon voting, which dates to 1877. It was designed to “discriminate against African Americans and suppress African American political power,” according to Daryl Atkinson of Forward Justice, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

State lawmakers last updated the law — N.C. Gen. Stat. §13-1 — in 1973.

“The law continues to achieve its intended discriminatory effects today,” Atkinson wrote. “Statewide, African Americans in North Carolina are disenfranchised at nearly three times the rate of the White population due to § 13-1’s felony supervision rule. In one county, a full 5% of the African American voting-age population is denied the franchise due to felony supervision.”

“Overall, § 13-1 denies the franchise to over 56,000 North Carolinians who live and work in North Carolina communities yet are denied any say in the laws that govern their lives,” Atkinson’s brief continued. “Furthermore, North Carolina elections under § 13-1 do not accurately reflect the will of the people where the vote margin in statewide and local elections is often less than the number of people who are disenfranchised in the state or respective local area as a result of the statute. This Court should affirm the trial court’s conclusion that § 13-1’s denial of the franchise to people on felony supervision violates both the North Carolina Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and its Free Elections Clause.”

Plaintiffs also ask the Supreme Court to confirm a trial court order that took effect in 2020. Felons who had completed all portions of their sentences except paying monetary penalties were able to vote in that year’s election.   

“[Section] 13-1 independently violates the North Carolina Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and its Ban on Property Qualifications by conditioning the restoration of a person’s voting rights on their ability to pay money,” Atkinson wrote. “The law discriminates against poor and low wealth people, who are denied the right to vote solely due to their inability to pay court costs, fees, and restitution.”

The friend-of-the-court brief from more than a dozen other states — all governed by Democrats — argued that “felon enfranchisement serves governmental interests in promoting civic participation and improving public safety, while felon disenfranchisement laws do not promote criminal justice goals and are administratively burdensome.”

A trial court ruled, 2-1, in March against the 1973 state law that spells out a process for felons to regain their voting rights. As part of that decision, the court ruled that all felons who had completed active prison time should be allowed to register to vote in North Carolina. That ruling would apply to felons on parole, probation, or post-release supervision.

A 2-1 N.C. Court of Appeals ruling on April 26 blocked felon voting for the May primary and July 26 elections. Under the Appeals Court’s decision, felon voting would begin in November.

Legislative leaders presented arguments in July against felon voting.

“Plaintiffs’ claims suffer from a fundamental defect: the statute they challenge, N.C.G.S. § 13-1, does not disenfranchise anyone,” wrote attorney Nicole Moss, who represents legislative leaders. “Rather, consistent with the North Carolina Constitution, Section 13-1 provides convicted felons a pathway for re-enfranchisement. It is the North Carolina Constitution, not Section 13-1, that disenfranchises convicted felons. And the Constitution provides that convicted felons are disenfranchised unless and until they are ‘restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.’”

“Therefore, even if Section 13-1’s restoration provisions that Plaintiffs challenge were unconstitutional (they are not), any such ruling would be a Pyrrhic victory for Plaintiffs, because the only proper judicial remedy would be to enjoin those provisions and eliminate any possibility of re-enfranchisement,” Moss added. “This fundamental defect not only dooms Plaintiffs’ claims on the merits but also rids them of standing to assert them.”

Lawmakers will have a chance to respond to the plaintiffs’ latest arguments before the case proceeds to oral arguments. No date has been set for those arguments before the state Supreme Court.