Thousands of North Carolina parolees and probationers may regain their right to vote because of a decision by a split panel of trial judges.
If upheld, the decision would restore voting rights to as many as 56,000 people, reported The Associated Press. The panel cited unconstitutional discrimination against Black voters among the reasons for the majority decision.
North Carolina Superior Court judges Lisa Bell and Keith Gregory signed the panel’s decision that would expand an August 2021 preliminary injunction that challenged a 1973 state law. The 49-year-old law aimed to ease restrictions of the restoration of voting rights that had prevented Black North Carolinians from voting. The judges said it did not go far enough and still delayed restoration of these rights for felons not actively serving time in jail or prison, according to the AP.
“The legislature cannot purge through the mere passage of time an impermissible racially discriminatory intent,” wrote Bell and Gregory, adding, “The legislature’s decision in the 1970s to preserve (the law’s) denial of the franchise to people living in the community was itself independently motivated by racism.”
The ruling strengthens the August 2021 preliminary injunction that the state Supreme Court had blocked in September of that year, the article said. Offenders who registered during the 10-day period affected by the injunction would remain on the voting rolls.
Panelist Judge John Dunlow dissented. He argued that the state had “valid and legitimate governmental interest” in a process that allowed felons to regain their voting rights only after completion of post-release probation or supervision. Dunlow added that the law “does not bear more heavily on one race or another” and “does not have the intent nor the effect of discriminating against African-Americans.”
The article said the North Carolina Constitution prohibits a felon from voting “unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law,” with rules that require the “unconditional discharge of an inmate, or a probationer, or of a parolee.”
According to the AP, Bell and Gregory said that the law violated equal protection and free election clauses of the state constitution. The judges cited evidence that Black residents suffer disproportionately from denial to vote because of felony probation supervision limits.
“Elections do not ascertain the will of the people when the denial of the franchise to such a large number of people has the clear potential to affect the outcome of numerous close elections,” the judges wrote.
An advocacy group called Forward Justice that represented the suit’s plaintiffs, commented on Twitter, “People who work, live and pay taxes in our communities should not have their voices & votes silenced due to a previous felony conviction.”
Spokespersons for the North Carolina Senate leader and House speaker, both listed among the lawsuit’s defendants, did not comment to the AP.