State Supreme Court denies motion to speed up felon voting case

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  • The N.C. Supreme Court has rejected without comment a proposal to speed up consideration of a lawsuit dealing with felon voting.
  • The N.C. State Board of Elections has been proceeding with a "status quo" that would permit felons who have completed active prison time to vote in November.

The N.C. Supreme Court will not speed up the timetable for a lawsuit challenging state restrictions on felon voting. An order issued Monday rejected a request for a shortened timeline in the case.

Justices issued that order without comment in the case titled Community Success Initiative v. Moore. Still up for debate is a separate request from state legislative leaders to extend the case’s current briefing deadlines.

At issue is a trial court ruling that could add allow 56,000 felons to vote in N.C. elections as soon as November. A split three-judge panel threw out a 1973 state law that dictates rules for felons to have their voting rights restored. The ruling would apply to felons who have completed active prison time but continue to face parole, probation, or post-release supervision.

Both the State Board of Elections and Republican legislative leaders had rejected plaintiffs’ request to shorten the case’s deadlines. Plaintiffs had asked for a briefing schedule that would have allowed for oral arguments as early as August.

As Carolina Journal reported on June 20, the elections board is proceeding with the “status quo” of allowing felons with no active prison time to vote in November.

“While State Board Defendants recognize that it is in the public interest for the issues in this case to be finally resolved as expeditiously as practicable, they oppose Plaintiffs’ motion to the extent it seeks a ruling from this Court prior to the 8 November 2022 general election, because of the administrative uncertainty and public confusion that could result from additional changes in voter eligibility in the run-up to the election,” wrote Terence Steed, special deputy attorney general with the N.C. Justice Department. Steed helps represent the State Board of Elections.

“Effective July 27, 2022, individuals on probation, parole, and post-release supervision for felony convictions may, if otherwise qualified, register and vote in the 8 November 2022 general election and all subsequent elections unless and until this Court alters the status quo,” Steed added.

A split 2-1 panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals blocked felon voting for the May 17 primary and July 26 elections. But the panel ruled that state elections officials should start making preparations for felon voting after July 26.

The elections board’s lawyer argued that the plaintiffs’ plan would cause too much confusion about the November election.

“[M]yriad preparations are needed for an election, many of which will have already taken place in anticipation of the 8 November 2022 general election by late August, including the printing of absentee ballot envelopes,” Steed wrote. “Those also include, of course, preparations to ensure the people affected by the superior court’s final order are given the opportunity to vote.”

“More significantly, impacted people have been on notice that they will be eligible to vote, and have thus expected to have the opportunity to vote, in the general election since the Court of Appeals issued its 26 April 2022 order,” Steed added. “Opening the door to a potential reversal of the status quo so close to the election would create a significant risk of confusion for impacted people about their eligibility to vote in the 8 November 2022 election.”

Legislative leaders also opposed an expedited timeline in the felon voting case. Lawyers representing top lawmakers have asked for extra time to prepare for the case. Their request would push oral arguments back to at least October.

The state Supreme Court has not yet addressed that request.

Justices agreed on May 6 to hear the case. Their decision pre-empted legislators’ request for the full 15-member Court of Appeals to reconsider the panel’s split decision.

Lawmakers requested the rare “en banc” appellate hearing after Judge Jefferson Griffin dissented from the initial Appeals Court ruling. Like legislative leaders, Griffin is a Republican. The two judges who ruled against him were both Democrats.

“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 in his April 26 dissent. “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.

An April 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.