State Supreme Court agrees to take up felon voting case

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  • The N.C. Supreme Court will decide a case that could add 56,000 felons to North Carolina's voting rolls.
  • The high court, with a 4-3 Democratic majority, has removed the possibility of a decision from the full 15-member Court of Appeals. Republicans outnumber Democrats, 10-5, on the Appeals Court.

The N.C. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could allow felons to vote in upcoming state elections. A victory for plaintiffs could open the door for 56,000 voters who are on parole, probation, or post-release supervision.

The decision will not affect voting in the May 17 primary.

A state Supreme Court order issued Friday takes the case out of the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals. A split three-judge appellate panel ruled April 26 that felons would not be allowed to register or vote in the May 17 primary or in July 26 elections. But the 2-1 ruling opened the door for felons who have finished active prison time to register and vote in November.

State legislative leaders filed paperwork on April 28 asking the full 15-member Court of Appeals to reconsider that decision in a rare “en banc” hearing. The Supreme Court’s order removes the possibility of a 15-judge appellate ruling.

Political observers have taken note of judges’ partisan affiliations in this case. In a trial court decision striking down the state’s 1973 law for felons to regain their voting rights, a Democrat and an unaffiliated judge ruled, 2-1, against a Republican colleague. In the Appeals Court panel, two Democratic judges overruled a Republican.

Republicans outnumber Democrats, 10-5, on the full N.C. Court of Appeals. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the Supreme Court.

While one new order signed by Democratic Justice Anita Earls confirms that the state’s highest court will consider the case, two other orders released at the same time indicate that the case will not get an expedited schedule. The court dismissed as moot requests from plaintiffs to suspend normal rules and render a decision that could allow felons to vote in the May primaries.

Republican legislative leaders have criticized the trial court ruling in the case. They say it ignores Article IV, Section 2(3) of the state Constitution. That provision proclaims felons cannot vote in state elections until they have been “first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.”

By striking down the 1973 law that set out a process for felons to regain voting rights, the trial court disenfranchised all felons, legislative leaders argued.

Republican Appeals Court Judge Jefferson Griffin agreed. He dissented from the April 26 ruling allowing for felon voting to begin in the fall.

“The framers of our State Constitution, and the people of this State, established … that convicted felons would not be treated the same as similarly situated, law-abiding citizens and would not be entitled to [the] same right to vote in free elections,” Griffin wrote. “Instead, convicted felons would not have the right to vote unless their voting rights are restored ‘in the manner prescribed by law.’”

Griffin warned of the “high risk of irreparable harm” to the public interest if felon voting proceeds before the legal dispute reaches its final resolution. “If convicted felons are permitted to vote in the November election and Petitioners subsequently prevail on the merits of their appeal, untold thousands of lawful votes cast by North Carolina citizens likely will be diluted by votes cast by convicted felons in violation of our State Constitution,” he wrote.

Both sides in the case will now file briefs with the state Supreme Court, which will hear the case later this year.

The most recent Civitas Poll from the John Locke Foundation found that 66% of likely general election voters support the state constitution’s current restrictions on felon voting. Among those surveyed, 54% opposed the trial court’s ruling allowing felons to cast votes before completing their full sentences.