by Chuck Sharman
On August 23, 2021, in a decision that immediately enfranchised some 55,000 North Carolinians, a state court ruled that felons released from prison on supervision may not be barred from voting.
The 2-1 decision by the judges of Fifth Superior Court—with judges Lisa Bell and Keith Gregory overruling the dissent of fellow Judge John Dunlow—rolls back a rule that has been in place since 1876, when the state legislature first moved to disenfranchise felons as a way of limiting the voting rights of Black North Carolinians.
As a result of the recent decision, “everyone on felony probation, parole or post-supervision release can now register and vote, starting today,” noted attorney Stanton Jones, who represented plaintiffs Community Success Initiatives in the case before the court that challenged the ban. CSI v. Moore (order pending).
The Speaker of the North Carolina House, Rep. Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain), promised to appeal. He is the defendant in the case, along with the president of the state Senate, Phil Berger (R-Eden).
The suit was filed in 2019 as a challenge to a state law that prevents voting rights from being restored to any convicted felon before his or her “unconditional discharge” from state custody, a provision that plaintiffs called unconstitutionally discriminatory. During the trial, attorney Darryl Atkinson noted that Black men make up nine percent of the state population but 36% of its disenfranchised voters—“largely frustrating aims of the 15th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” he argued.
The same panel of judges had previously issued a preliminary injunction in September 2020 to stop the state from enforcing another provision in the law, making payment of certain fines and fees a precondition to regaining voting rights.
State Republicans lined up behind their leaders’ plan to appeal the decision, with one—state Sen. Warren Daniel(R-Morganton)—calling it a “power grab.”
“Judges aren’t supposed to be oligarchs who issue whatever decrees they think best,” he opined.
Until the time when—or if—the ruling is overturned, North Carolina remains one of 22 states, and the only one in the South, that automatically restores the voting rights of felons after they complete their prison sentences.
Sources: Law&Crime, Carolina Public Press
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