Lawsuit seeks to restore voting rights to North Carolinians with felonies, strike down ‘Jim Crow era’ law

By: - November 21, 2019 12:55 pm

Dennis Gaddy, the founder and Executive Director of Community Success Initiative, was denied his right to vote for seven years because of a felony conviction. A lawsuit filed this week to restore the voting rights of others in similar positions is personal, he said Wednesday. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Dennis Gaddy missed out on the opportunity to elect the nation’s first African-American president because of his criminal record, despite re-entering society, paying taxes, taking care of his children and being a responsible and respected citizen.

After losing the right to vote for seven years, he’s now a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the statute that took away that “sacred” right, even after he served his time and “fully returned to society.”

The statute, enacted in 1971, continues to make it illegal for any person convicted of a felony to vote if they are still on probation or parole.

“The fight is deeply personal to me,” Gaddy said Wednesday at a press conference announcing the litigation. “When North Carolina excluded from its democracy people with past convictions living in a community, working and contributing to society, but still under probation and parole, [the state] excluded me and the people I devote my life to serving.”

Gaddy is the executive director of Community Success Initiative (CSI), a nonprofit organization that works with men and women in prison, former prisoners, people in transition and their families as they move back into family and community life.

As a lead plaintiff, he said he wants to ensure that directly impacted people are protected and that their voices are heard. He also wants to bring a sense of hope to those planning to reintegrate into society “against great odds.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the felony disenfranchisement law unconstitutional and to enjoin the state from preventing North Carolina citizens released from incarceration or not sentenced to incarceration from registering to vote and exercising the right to vote based on their felony conviction.

It also asks to enjoin the state from conditioning restoration of the right to vote on payment of any financial obligation and to notify all people with past felony convictions who have already been released from incarceration or are released in the future that their right to vote was restored upon release.

It’s estimated that around 70,000 North Carolinians are currently prohibited from voting because of the law that requires they be unconditionally released from probation or parole first – and because the system was built on racial discrimination, it disproportionately impacts African-American and Latino citizens.

Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice, delivered the opening remarks at a press conference Wednesday announcing a lawsuit that challenges a North Carolina statute disenfranchising individuals previously convicted of a felony. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“Throughout our nation’s history, the fight over the fundamental right to vote has always been about who is included in the ‘we’ in the ‘we the people,’” said Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice. “Today, we are saying that people who live in our communities, been convicted of felonies, paying taxes, who are dropping kids off at daycare, who are going to church, we’re saying that those folks are included in the ‘we the people.’”

The legal team pursuing litigation on behalf of the plaintiffs includes attorneys from Forward Justice, Protect Democracy and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP. The lawsuit contends that elections in North Carolina are not free, fair or equal because of the felony disenfranchisement scheme.

Current law, the suit states, violates four guarantees in the North Carolina constitution: the free elections clause, the equal protection clause, the freedom of speech and assembly clauses and the ban on property qualifications clause.

The latter claim is based on the current statutory requirement that individuals convicted of felonies must pay money to regain access to voting.

Conditions of probation and parole in North Carolina require people to have paid court costs and restitution, but it also costs money to be on probation or parole, and failure to pay can result in lengthening supervision and delaying their right to vote.

“Your inability to pay, poverty, the fact that you don’t have enough money, shouldn’t infringe upon a fundamental right in this country – your ability to cast a ballot,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson has been fighting for criminal justice reform for most of his career. He was the first Second Chance Fellow for U.S. Department of Justice and a founding member of the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance.

When asked why advocates decided to bring litigation now and not years ago, he said the mood of the country is changing and gerrymandering litigation has breathed new life into the North Carolina Constitution – particularly the free elections clause.

He pointed to states like Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, states that recently restored voting rights to individuals convicted of felonies.

“It’s time for North Carolina to come out of the dark ages of the Jim Crow era and come into the enlightenment that people who are in our communities should have the abilities and the voice or say so in what policies impact their lives,” Atkinson said.

Another plaintiff in the suit is Justice Served NC, an organization with a mission to provide community-based alternatives to incarceration, as well as mentorship and voter education for individuals involved in the criminal justice system.

Justice Served NC is one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit that seeks to restore the voting rights of individuals previously convicted of felonies. Diana Powell, the director and owner of the organization, spoke Wednesday at a press conference. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Executive Director Diana Powell said her group works to combat felony disenfranchisement and to empower directly-impacted communities in North Carolina so that everyone feels they are valued and an important part of society.

“So many people entangled in the criminal justice system begin to lose hope after facing endless collateral consequences and being shut down time after time,” she said. “Many begin to think their voices and contributions don’t matter.”

The inclusion of all voices, she added, is the foundation of true democracy.

“Today, we say the important right to vote cannot be overstated. Quite simply, the vote is the voice in our own lives. It gives us a say over the direction of our elected officials and the policies that govern our daily experiences.

“This right should not be conditioned on paying fees, restitutions and fines or other terms of probation and parole, where our neighbors and family members with past convictions are otherwise actively participating and contributing in our communities trying to raise children and grandchildren, trying to live lives that are healthy and safe.”

She added that she works every week with people in the above situation, and they deserve to have a say in their own life, which is why the lawsuit is necessary.

Similarly, the last plaintiff in the suit, the North Carolina NAACP, stated it is participating to end the relic of racial discrimination before another major election takes place.

“It is time for a new day in North Carolina, where we say ‘no more’ to the racist disenfranchisement policy that is not only unconstitutional in its origin and impact, but that dishonors our democratic commitment to ensuring that North Carolina elections reflect the will of the people,” said Joseph Alston, Executive Director of the NC NAACP, who was delivering a statement on behalf of the president, the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman.

Stanton Jones spoke on behalf of Arnold and Porter, the Washington D.C. law firm that is helping bring the litigation. Jones was also an attorney in the successful partisan gerrymandering lawsuit, Common Cause v. Lewis.

“The North Carolina constitution guarantees to every person in this state elections that are free and fair,” he said Wednesday. “The state’s elections are not fair when tens of thousands of neighbors, family members, coworkers are prohibited from participating in our democratic elections.

“The elections are not equal when the state’s disenfranchisement laws overwhelmingly deny the right to vote to people of color. And the elections are not free when thousands of people are unable to vote for no other reason other than their inability to pay money.”

“Only when these laws are eliminated will the elections of this state be free, fair and equal for every North Carolinian,” Jones said.

[Editor’s note: The North Carolina Justice Center — parent organization of NC Policy Watch — is a member of the N.C. Second Chance Alliance.]

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Melissa Boughton

Melissa Boughton worked as the Courts and Law Reporter at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020.