Supporters of felon voting urge N.C. Supreme Court to speed up case’s timeline

Image of the NC Supreme Court, Carolina Journal photo by Maya Reagan

Listen to this story (6 minutes)

  • Plaintiffs seeking voting rights for 56,000 N.C. felons are asking the N.C. Supreme Court to expedite its schedule for considering the case.
  • A motion filed Friday urges the state's highest court to schedule oral arguments "in August if possible."

Advocates of felon voting in North Carolina are asking the N.C. Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in their lawsuit as early as August. The request arrived in a motion filed Friday at the state’s highest court.

A final decision in the case, Community Success Initiative v. Moore, could add 56,000 felons to the state’s voting rolls. Plaintiffs are seeking voting rights for felons who have completed active prison time but continue to face probation, parole, or post-release supervision. State law based on a provision of the N.C. Constitution has blocked those felons from voting.

Without any action now from the state Supreme Court, it’s possible those felons could be allowed to register and vote in the general election this fall.

The state Supreme Court agreed on May 6 to hear the case. Opposing parties agreed June 1 on the written record that will head to the high court, according to the motion. Justices should see that record “on or before June 16.”

Felon voting supporters remind justices that the case started in November 2019. “Good cause exists to expedite briefing and argument in this matter,” according to the motion from attorney Daryl Atkinson of Forward Justice. Atkinson represents the plaintiffs. “This case, of extraordinary public importance involving the voting rights of over 56,000 North Carolinians living in communities across the State, has been pending for over 2.5 years.”

Atkinson urged the N.C. Supreme Court to set a July 7 deadline for the first brief in the case. That deadline would apply to legislative leaders, who oppose the lawsuit.

A final brief would be due Aug. 8. “Plaintiffs further request that the Court schedule this case for oral argument at the earliest convenient date following the completion of briefing, in August if possible,” Atkinson wrote. “Plaintiffs would be amenable to an even more expedited schedule if the Court prefers.”

The state Supreme Court’s May 6 order took 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 May 6 action removed the possibility of a 15-judge appellate ruling.

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

Had the full Appeals Court held the en banc hearing, Republicans would have outnumbered Democrats, 10-5. Democrats outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the state Supreme Court.

Republican legislative leaders have criticized the trial court ruling. They say it ignores Article VI, 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 created 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.

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.