North Carolina court restores the vote to 56,000

Update: This decision was stayed by the North Carolina Court of Appeals on September 3, 2021. As a result, the decision will not go into effect either until the appeal is resolved or further order of the court.

A three-judge state court in North Carolina has ruled that state’s felony disenfranchisement law unconstitutional as applied to individuals under supervision in the community, immediately restoring the vote to some 56,000 individuals. The decision means that in 24 states and the District of Columbia individuals convicted of felonies and serving a sentence in the community may vote.  North Carolina is the first southern state to restore the vote to convicted individuals upon release from prison.

As the New York Times noted in describing the court’s action, the ruling was “not entirely unexpected,” since “the same court had temporarily blocked enforcement of part of the law before the November general election, stating that most people who had completed their prison sentences could not be barred from voting if [the] only reason for their continued supervision was that they owed fines or court fees.”  See Community Success Initiative v. Moore, No. 19-cv-15941 (N.C. Super. Ct. Sept. 4, 2020).

While last year’s preliminary decision rested on the ground that requiring payment of court debt represented an poll tax, the challenge to North Carolina’s reenfranchisement scheme relied more broadly on its origins in intentional post-Civil War discrimination against Black people.  As the Times article noted, the decision “followed a trial that bared the history of the state’s disenfranchisement of Black people in sometimes shocking detail.”

The law struck down on Monday, which was enacted in 1877, extended disenfranchisement to people convicted of felonies in response to the 15th Amendment, which enshrined Black voting rights in the Constitution. But in the decade before that, local judges had reacted to the Civil War’s freeing of Black people by convicting them en masse and delivering public whippings, bringing them under a law denying the vote to anyone convicted of a crime for which whipping was a penalty.

A handful of Black legislators in the General Assembly tried to rescind the 1877 law in the early 1970s, but secured only procedural changes, such as a limit on the discretion of judges to prolong probation or court supervision.

The court has not yet released its opinion, and state officials may decide to appeal.

Why shouldn’t everybody with a felony conviction be allowed to vote?

The editors of the New York Times are critical of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s recent veto of a law that would have allowed anyone with a felony conviction to vote if they are living in the free community.  See “A Bad Voting Ban,” June 1, 2015.  Maryland’s law now disenfranchises anyone convicted of a “felony and . . . actually serving a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment, including any term of parole or probation, for the conviction.” The Times editorial points out that Maryland changed its law to restore voting rights automatically upon completion of sentence in 2007, and that disenfranchisement based upon conviction is generally a punitive relic of slavery.

So if felony disenfranchisement laws are punitive relics, why should they be applied to anyone, even people who are still in prison?   The logic of the Times editors’ position would seem to support voting by prisoners, as happens in Vermont and Maine and in many parts of Europe.  An argument against voting by prisoners based on disenfranchisement as an integral part of court-imposed punishment would apply equally to probationers and parolees. The notion that prisoners no longer have a connection to their communities is a self-fulfilling prophecy that runs against current policies of encouraging prisoner reentry.   If there are practical reasons to bar prisoners from jury service and political office, they do not apply to voting when absentee ballots have become commonplace.

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