Legislative leaders bolster their case in N.C. Supreme Court felon voting dispute

Carolina Journal photo by Mitch Kokai

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  • N.C. legislative leaders argue in a new court filing that supporters of felon voting have attacked the wrong state law in a suit now at the state Supreme Court.
  • Felons who have completed active prison sentences are now permitted to register to vote. Supporters of felon voting say the court case could open the door to 56,000 new voters.

Groups pushing for felon voting in North Carolina have attacked the wrong state law, according to the latest filing from state legislative leaders at the N.C. Supreme Court. The document filed Monday addresses a group of friend-of-the-court briefs submitted in favor of felon voting.

The case ultimately could lead to 56,000 new voters in North Carolina. Those voters are on parole, probation, or post-release supervision after being convicted of felonies.

“The amicus briefs supporting Plaintiffs confirm that this case is a policy dispute disguised as a constitutional challenge,” according to the legislators’ latest brief. “Plaintiffs and their supporters may fervently believe that felon voting rights should be restored upon the completion of a prison sentence (or immediately for felons sentenced to probation), but nothing in the North Carolina Constitution demands that policy outcome.”

“Indeed, amici supporting Plaintiffs uniformly repeat the fundamental error in Plaintiffs’ suit,” the brief added. “Like Plaintiffs, they fail to explain how the statute at issue, N.C.G.S. § 13-1, causes felon disenfranchisement. It does not.”

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 13-1 is the state law, last revised in 1973, that spells out the process for felons to regain voting rights.

“The North Carolina Constitution provides that ‘[n]o person adjudged guilty of a felony … shall be permitted to vote unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law,’” according to legislators’ brief. “Today, Section 13-1 is that re-enfranchisement law. And Plaintiffs are challenging only that law, not the constitutional provision that disenfranchises felons or the statute that criminalizes felon voting.”

“Plaintiffs’ amicus briefs are, therefore, fundamentally irrelevant. Several of these briefs barely mention Section 13-1 at all, focusing instead on the provisions that actually prevent convicted felons from voting — and illustrating that Plaintiffs have challenged the wrong law,” lawmakers argued. “Plaintiffs’ amici further undermine Plaintiffs’ suit by underscoring that Section 13-1 was not passed with discriminatory motives and does not have a disparate racial impact. Indeed, the regime preferred by some amici and reflected in the Superior Court order would only increase any racial disparity in the pool of felons who remain ineligible to vote. The amicus briefs supporting Plaintiffs thus serve only to illustrate why Plaintiffs cannot prevail.”

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 in North Carolina. 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. The state Supreme Court now has the case, titled Community Success Initiative v. Moore.

In a Sept. 9 court filing, lawmakers rebutted the plaintiffs’ arguments in the case.

“On the merits, Plaintiffs’ claim that Section 13-1 was racially motivated hinges upon tying Section 13-1 to racial animus that they contend surrounded the effort to add felon disenfranchisement to the North Carolina constitution in 1876 and codify that policy in statute in 1877,” according to legislators’ brief. “What Plaintiffs cannot escape, however, is that the re-enfranchisement statute — the predecessor to Section 13-1 that Plaintiffs challenge — was not amended in the 1870s but rather retained the form it had taken since 1840 — before African Americans had the right to vote.”

“Therefore, even if Plaintiffs theoretically could succeed by tarring the civil rights reformers who enacted the 1970s reforms with what came before (and they cannot), such a gambit would not work here. A re-enfranchisement law enacted before African Americans had the right to vote cannot possibly have been motivated by discrimination against African Americans. Plaintiffs also cannot escape that every amendment to the felon re-enfranchisement law since 1840 has been in the direction of greater liberalization, and the form Section 13-1 takes today is the result of reform efforts by civil rights stalwarts.”

“Once the focus is on re-enfranchisement, rather than disenfranchisement, Plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination fall apart,” legislative leaders argue. “Accepting Plaintiffs’ other arguments for invalidating Section 13-1 would require this Court to find that felons have a fundamental right to vote, that elections without them are not ‘free,’ and that insisting felons pay their debt to society before rejoining the electorate is the equivalent of a poll-tax or property qualification. No such findings are possible because the North Carolina Constitution itself disenfranchises felons, subject to any re-enfranchisement law the General Assembly may in its discretion enact.”

The Supreme Court has not yet scheduled oral arguments in the case.