Legislative leaders defend law that sets rules for felons to regain N.C. voting rights

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  • Lawyers representing N.C. legislative leaders defend a state law that sets out rules for felons to regain their voting rights.
  • Leading lawmakers argue the N.C. Constitution, not the 1973 law, disenfranchises felons.
  • The N.C. Supreme Court will decide whether as many as 56,000 felons will be allowed to vote in state elections as early as November.

Leading legislators challenge a recent court ruling that could allow as many as 56,000 felons to vote in the November elections. Lawmakers make their case in a new brief filed Monday at the N.C. Supreme Court.

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.

“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.”

The push for increased felon voting “fails,” Moss wrote, even “apart from this infirmity.”

“For well over a century, North Carolina has disenfranchised felons by operation of its Constitution and provided a statutory pathway for felons to be restored to the franchise after completing all terms of their sentences,” she explained. “The restoration statute has gone through several iterations over the years with one unifying theme — each subsequent version has been designed to make it easier for felons to regain the right to vote after completing all terms of their sentence. The modern restoration statute, N.C.G.S. § 13-1, dates to the early 1970s, and this Court has already noted that it followed this historic trend.”

“Both the 1971 and 1973 statutes were sponsored by the legislature’s African American members as ameliorative measures easing the path to restoration of voting rights,” Moss wrote. “And yet the Superior Court held that this restoration statute, the most relaxed North Carolina has ever had, which does not disenfranchise anyone, violates several provisions of the North Carolina Constitution.”

Moss labels the March trial court ruling “mistaken.” “Section 13-1 does not violate the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating on the basis of race. Not only is this law, championed by civil-rights stalwarts, the most generous re-enfranchisement law in State history, no evidence shows that it has any disparate impact and it does nothing to deprive African Americans of equal voting power.”

“Section 13-1 does not violate the Equal Protection Clause by depriving felons on supervision of their fundamental right to vote or by creating a wealth-based restriction on exercising that right,” Moss wrote. “Felons do not have a fundamental right to vote in North Carolina. Section 13-1 does not violate the Free Elections Clause because convicted felons are not part of the voting population that clause exists to protect, and Section 13-1 does not violate the Property Qualifications Clause because it does not impose a property qualification. The Superior Court’s judgments must be reversed.”

Felon voting advocates will have a chance to respond with their own brief before the state Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case. No date has been scheduled for those arguments.

The court decided in June not to speed up its timeline for the case, titled Community Success Initiative v. Moore. Felon voting supporters had asked for an expedited schedule that would have led to oral arguments as early as August.