NC Supreme Court upholds law that disenfranchises thousands convicted of felonies

More than 50,000 people lose their right to vote

By: - May 1, 2023 11:58 am

Dennis Gaddy, the founder and Executive Director of Community Success Initiative, was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. Gaddy said future generations will remember April 28th as the day that democracy was gutted in North Carolina. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The North Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday upholding a 1970s law requiring people convicted of felonies to complete the terms of their probation or parole in order to regain their right to vote.

The decision — which fell 5-2 along party lines — affects more than 50,000 people.

Friday’s majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Trey Allen, a Republican elected to the Supreme Court last year. A previous ruling by a trial court found that the law, passed by the General Assembly in 1973,  disproportionately harms Black people by locking them out of the voting booth. In rejecting that lower court ruling, Allen disputed statistical evidence showing African Americans made up a disproportionate share of those on supervision as part of a felony conviction, and said reforms passed by lawmakers “made it easier for eligible felons of all races to regain their voting rights.”

Associate Justice Trey Allen

Allen pointed out that North Carolina’s constitution expressly says people convicted of felonies “have no fundamental right to vote.” However, the constitution also says that right can be restored “in the manner prescribed by law.”  The 50-year-old law re-enfranchises people convicted of felonies, rather than disenfranchises them, Allen and the Republican majority ruled. Otherwise, “plaintiff-felons and all other felons in this state would be disenfranchised permanently,” Allen wrote.

Allen and his Republican colleagues on the court ruled that the General Assembly was not engaged in racial discrimination when it changed the felony disenfranchisement laws in 1973 — when there were just three Black people on the legislature.

“It is not unconstitutional to insist that felons pay their debt to society as a condition of participating in the electoral process,” Allen wrote.

Associate Justice Anita Earls authored a dissent, predicting the majority opinion would one day be reversed for two reasons: “First, because it seeks to justify the denial of a basic human right to citizens and thereby perpetuates a vestige of slavery, and second, because the majority violates a basic tenant of appellate review by ignoring the facts as found by the trial court and substituting its own.”

Overruling the trial court

The trial court ruled last year that the state law determining the terms people convicted of felonies must meet to regain the right to vote was unconstitutional. “Elections cannot faithfully ascertain the will of all of the people when the class of persons denied the franchise due to felony supervision is disproportionately African Americans by wide margins at both the statewide and county levels,” the opinion reads.

That ruling “unlocked the vote” of some 56,000 people before last year’s midterms.

Allen said the trial court erred because it “failed to apply the presumption of legislative good faith.” As a result, he wrote, the Supreme Court was not bound by the trial court’s factual findings.

Notably, Allen’s opinion also reinstates a requirement that people on supervision pay all their fines and fees in order to be re-enfranchised. The trial court had nixed this requirement because, the judges said, requiring people to pay all their fines to regain the right to vote created a “wealth classification.”

Allen disagreed. He wrote that members of the General Assembly in the ’70s, when they passed the reforms under scrutiny, could have thought that “felons who pay their court costs, fines, or restitution are more likely than other felons to vote responsibly.” Or, Allen wrote, they could have seen the requirement that people on supervision must pay all fines and fees before regaining the right to vote “as an incentive for felons to take financial responsibility for their crimes.”

Dissent and outrage

In her dissent, Associate Justice Earls excoriated her colleagues on the majority for “ignoring the facts as found by a trial court and substituting its own.” She said that denying the “basic human right” of access to the ballot box “perpetuates a vestige of slavery.”

Earls compared the Republican majority’s ruling to a past Supreme Court opinion supporting slavery.

“Today, the Court again consigns a portion of the state’s population to a less than free status, unable to participate in the fundamental exercise of self-governance upon which democracy is based,” she wrote.

Associate Justice Anita Earls

Earls wrote that the majority interpreted the constitution “to reduce the humanity of individuals convicted of felony offenses to the point of cruelty: People convicted of felony offenses are no longer people, they are felons.”

She pointed out that Black people make up 21% of North Carolinians but more than 42% of those are disenfranchised because they are on supervision for a felony conviction. There isn’t one county in North Carolina where whites are disenfranchised at a higher rate than Black voters, she added.

Voting rights advocates also slammed the court for its decision.

“Future generations will remember today as the day that democracy was gutted in North Carolina and voter suppression re-emerged in the Supreme Court,” Dennis Gaddy, director of Community Success Initiative, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Stripping away the right to vote from over 56,000 people who had finally gotten their voices back clearly demonstrates just how dedicated our officials are to silencing the people whose rights they are supposed to protect.”

Others lamented the loss of a basic civil right.

“This makes us feel like we aren’t even American citizens,” said Shakita Norman, an individual plaintiff in the lawsuit who was able to vote in 2022 because of the trial court ruling. “We’ve had a long fight and to see our hard-fought victory taken away because of the politics of people is frustrating and sickening. Why can’t we have a voice in how things are governed?”

Daryl Atkinson, lead attorney in the case and co-director of Forward Justice, vowed to take the fight to the General Assembly for Second Chance Lobby Day at the Capitol on May 2. If the Supreme Court is unwilling to restore voting rights to those on felony supervision, perhaps legislators will be more amenable.

“Now the ball is in their court,” Atkinson said.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.