Judges: More felony offenders can now vote

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Tens of thousands of North Carolina residents convicted of felonies but whose current punishments don't include prison time can register to vote and cast ballots, a judicial panel declared Monday.

Several civil rights groups and ex-offenders who sued legislative leaders and state officials in 2019 argue the current 1973 law is unconstitutional by denying the right vote to people who have completed their active sentences or received no such sentence, such as people on probation. They said the rules disproportionately affect Black residents.

In a brief hearing following a trial last week challenging the state's voting restrictions upon felons, Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell said two judges on the three-judge panel have agreed they would issue a formal order soon allowing more felony offenders to vote. The judges are acting before issuing a final ruling from the trial, as voting in October municipal elections begins next month.

The law says felons can register to vote again once they complete all aspects of their sentence, including probation and parole. With Bell's ruling, felons who only must complete these punishments that have no element of incarceration can register again. The decision also would apply to people convicted of a federal
felony in North Carolina but whose current punishment is only probation.

An expert for the plaintiffs estimates that roughly 56,000 people would now be allowed to vote. There are currently more than 7.1 million registered voters in North Carolina, according to the State Board of Elections, which is a defendant along with legislative leaders. They could attempt to block the preliminary injunction from being carried out with an appeal. Otherwise, the State Board of Elections would send letters to those offenders telling them of their ability to vote.

The defendants also could have the chance to appeal any final ruling from the trial judges that expands restored voting rights in the months ahead for the 2022 elections.

The state elections board and legislative leaders did not immediately provide a comment on Monday's decision.

Last year, the same judges ruled a portion of the law requiring felons to pay all monetary obligations before voting again was unenforceable because it made voting dependent on one's financial means. That allowed more people to vote in last November's election.

Bell, the panel's chief judge, said Monday that the majority's reasoning for the injunction would be explained in their upcoming order. The state election board said Monday was its deadline to change language on registration forms for the fall election.

Lawyers representing those who were sued have said the law does not violate constitutional rights because it treats all people convicted of felonies the same by withholding the right to vote.

The current North Carolina Constitution forbids a 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."

Another plaintiffs' witness testified last week that a felony disenfranchisement amendment had origins from a Reconstruction-era amendment he said was designed to intentionally prevent Black residents from voting.

Twenty states automatically restore voting rights for convicted felons when they are released from prison, while about 15 states restore those rights upon completion of their sentence, including probation and parole, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.


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