A cartoon depicting a complex obstacle course leading to a ballot box.
Illustration by Richard Farrell ’22.

Kevin Xavier Garcia-Galindo 24’ (he/him), Staff Writer

On the 23rd of August, the State Superior Court in Raleigh restored voting rights to a group of approximately 56,000 convicted felons on probation or parole in the state of North Carolina. The ruling came to a 2-1 decision in the State Superior Court amid pressure from many civil rights groups, including three distinct groups, Justice Served NC, Community Success Initiative, and Forward Justice, that help rehabilitate ex-felons and six defendants barred from voting.

The three-judge panel found that the state’s felony disenfranchisement law violated two provisions of the North Carolina Constitution including the Equal Protection Clause and the Constitution’s ban on property qualification “because it conditions the right to vote on a person’s ability to pay fines, fees, and other debts associated with their previous felony conviction” according to Protect Democracy. 

The North Carolina State Constitution precludes any person convicted of a felony from voting “unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.” The law that set the restoration rule dates back to 1973 and prescribed that restoration requires “unconditional discharge of an inmate, of a probationer, or of a parolee.”

 Diana Powell, executive Director of Justice Served NC, a Raleigh-based community group focused on rehabilitating people caught in the criminal justice system, said jubilantly that when she “heard the ruling, [she] wanted to run in the street and tell everybody that now you have a voice.” Daryl Atkinson, a lawyer in the suit and co-director of Durham civil rights group Forward Justice said “Today, we enlarged the ‘we’ in ‘We the people.’” 

Dennis Gaddy, another plaintiff and executive director of Community Success Initiative, also felt relieved upon hearing the ruling that day. Gaddy knows what it feels like to serve time behind bars and was disenfranchised for seven years after being released on probation. Many felons out on probation work and pay taxes like any other citizen. “I just believe that they ought to have the right to vote,” said Gaddy, now 62. 

Prior to this ruling, felons in North Carolina were not allowed to vote until they left probation, parole, or post-supervision like most other states that remove and return a person’s right to vote at some point after leaving prison. Currently, only two states (Maine and Vermont) and the District of Columbia do not remove a felon’s right to vote even when incarcerated. Another 21 states have automatic restoration of voting rights after prison time, and 16 other states allow restoration of voting rights only after a period of time after prison time (parole/probation). 

On Friday September 3rd, however, the State Court of Appeals agreed to halt the prior week’s trial judge decision to allow North Carolinian convicted felons to regain the right to vote. This was due to an appeal from the defendants including North Carolina Republicans Senate Majority leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). 

State Senator Warren Daniel (R-Burke) said concerning the original 2-1 Superior Court decision that “This law, passed by a Democrat-led legislature 50 years ago, provides a path for felons to regain voting rights. If a judge prefers a different path to regaining those rights, then he or she should run for the General Assembly and propose that path. Judges aren’t supposed to be oligarchs who issue whatever decrees they think best.” Furthermore, Sam Hayes, attorney for House Speaker and defendant in this case Tim Moore, attacked the decision as an “absurd ruling that flies in the face of our constitution and further casts doubt on election integrity in North Carolina.” 

After the release of the original decision, the GOP-led North Carolina General Assembly, in a rare move, decided to fire the Democrat Attorney General Josh Stein from defending the legislature alleging that he was violating his constitutional duty to represent the legislature in court. Attorney General Josh Stein defended his decision by citing a technicality that says that his office cannot appeal a judge’s ruling without a written opinion.

Had the decision been let stand, North Carolina would have joined the likes of Georgia and South Carolina in allowing the restoration of voting rights after prison time in vivid contrast with Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida who have permanent disenfranchisement for some kinds of criminal convictions unless the government approves restoration according to the Brennan Center for Justice. 

The decision now in place means that affected citizens cannot vote in this fall’s municipal elections. The decision will inevitably cause confusion since some felons affected by the prior decision most certainly have already registered to vote. Voting rights groups had already started setting up registration drives targeting the then newly enfranchised.

Prior to the successful appeal of the decision, the Davidsonian interviewed CPE co-president Tommy Cromie ‘22. He called the decision “the biggest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina since 1960” and assessed the signs that foretold a likely appeal, saying that “[he] wouldn’t be surprised to see the North Carolina legislature stand on its appeal.”

When it came to discussing how activists could ensure the biggest effect coming from this case, Tommy highlighted how important micro-targeting will be to have the greatest number of previously disenfranchised people registered again. Many of the organizations mentioned earlier already had plans to set up a huge voter registration drive and Justice Served NC began pre-registering voters before the decision was announced.

What happens from here will depend solely on what the Supreme Court of North Carolina does by either rejecting the case or hearing it. This would push the decision back to an undecided date that could have big consequences for the coming municipal and senate election.