Voting rights advocates sue in federal court over NC’s felony disenfranchisement

By: - June 16, 2023 3:46 pm

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday over a law that makes it a felony for a North Carolinian to vote while they are on supervision for a felony conviction, even if they are erroneously told by their parole officer or an election worker that they are allowed to cast a ballot.

“It is completely unjust for a prosecutor to bring a felony charge against someone who made an honest mistake by voting before their sentence was complete due to some unpaid, and often unknown, court cost,” Pat McCoy, the Co-Executive Director of Action NC, said in a statement. “We hope the court will enjoin this law before the next election to ensure thousands of North Carolinians have their voices heard at the polls.”

Legislators enacted the law, known as the “Strict Liability Voting Law,” in 1877 to disenfranchise Black voters, and reenacted it in 1899 as part of a broader attempt by the legislature to suppress Black voters’ political voice.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP asked the court to declare the law unconstitutional on Fourteenth Amendment grounds.

“The undisputed record also shows that county prosecutors have interpreted and enforced the Law inconsistently,” the motion reads. “While some prosecutors have charged individuals who mistakenly voted before completing their post- release supervision, others have declined to prosecute individuals where there was no evidence of intent.”

That motion also states that about Black residents make up 22% of North Carolina’s population, but almost 64% of those investigated by the State Board of Elections under the Strict Liability Voting Law between 2015 and 2022.

More than two-thirds of the 441 cases investigated after the 2016 general election audit involved Black voters.

“For over 120 years, the voices of North Carolinians who have been convicted of felony offenses, specifically Black North Carolinians, have been chilled by the selective and arbitrary enforcement of North Carolina’s strict liability voter prosecution law,” Mitchell Brown, Senior Counsel for Voting Rights at SCSJ, said in a statement. “We hope that the Court rules in our favor, outlawing a racist, vague law that criminalizes mistakes and misunderstandings regarding voter eligibility by individuals with felony convictions who merely are trying to re-engage in the political process and perform their civic duty.”

Voting rights advocates recently used state courts to challenge North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement provisions. A trial court agreed with them that the law was unconstitutional and suppressed Black voters, “unlocking the vote” of some 56,000 people on supervision for a felony. But earlier this year the Supreme Court reversed the ruling, deeming felony disenfranchisement constitutional.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed their lawsuit in federal court, meaning it will take a different judicial path than the one filed in state courts and ultimately decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Click here to read the court filing. And click here to read an in-depth story published in collaboration with Bolts about the history of felony disenfranchisement in North Carolina — and the efforts last year to register people on felony supervision before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

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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.