NC court rules vote may not be denied based on court debt

On September 4, a North Carolina state court issued a major decision on restoration of voting rights.  In North Carolina, voting rights lost upon a felony conviction are automatically restored upon “unconditional discharge” of sentence or unconditional pardon.  A three-judge panel, observing that “unconditional discharge” can be delayed for up to eight years because of unpaid restitution and other financial obligations, ruled that conditioning the vote on payment of money violates the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and ban on property qualifications in voting.  The court held, in a 2-1 ruling, that the state may not withhold the vote from people whose only remaining aspect of their sentence–other than regular conditions of probation–is payment of a financial obligation. The dissenting judge opined that people convicted of felonies have no “fundamental interest” in voting.

The court issued a summary judgment order and preliminary injunction requiring the state to allow individuals to register to vote immediately if: (1) their “only remaining barrier to obtaining a ‘unconditional discharge’ other than regular conditions of probation…is the payment of a monetary amount”; or (2) they have been discharged from probation and owed a monetary amount upon termination of probation, including if the amount was reduced to a civil lien.

Forward Justice, Protect Democracy, and Arnold & Porter represent the plaintiffs in the case: Community Success Initiative, the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Justice Served NC, Inc, and Wash Away Unemployment. Forward Justice’s press release is here.

Meanwhile, the questions raised by Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system remain under consideration by the federal court of appeals for the 11th Circuit.  CCRC filed an amicus brief in that case describing how court debt affects restoration of voting rights in all 50 states. The full court heard argument in the case Jones v. DeSantis on August 18, but it is not clear whether there will be a decision before the October 5 deadline to register to vote in that state.