RALEIGH — Attorneys for convicted felons urged North Carolina judges on Wednesday to block a state law that keeps felons from voting until their full sentences — not just prison time — are complete, arguing in part that the law is racially discriminatory.
If voters’ rights activists are successful, the decision could lead to an influx of voters in a hotly contested election year and potentially affect close races, including the race for president and for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Thom Tillis.
Florida has faced a similar ongoing legal battle after Republican state lawmakers last year passed a law requiring all fines, fees and restitution to be paid before felons — who some activists call “returning citizens” — could be allowed to vote.
In North Carolina, a state law overhauled in the 1970s is being challenged by groups that help ex-offenders. Several people barred from voting because they are still serving punishments out of prison are also part of the lawsuit.
The restrictions mean more than 56,000 non-incarcerated residents are unable to cast ballots, preventing them from being heard and participating in free elections, plaintiffs’ attorney Daniel Jacobson told a judicial panel in a video conference hearing. Black residents are disproportionately affected, he said.
The judges must decide whether to grant the plaintiffs’ request to declare the law unconstitutional for preventing an offender from voting until the person completes probation or parole, or when a suspended sentence is over. The judges also could block enforcement of this prohibition simply if they determine those who sued are likely to win during a trial.
State lawyers representing legislative leaders and state elections board members who were sued said the law isn’t unconstitutional because it treats all people convicted of felonies the same by withholding the right to vote. It also serves the government’s interest to regulate voter qualifications, simplify how voting rights are restored and to encourage the offenders to make restitution to crime victims, the lawyers wrote in a brief.
Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell, the presiding judge on the panel, scheduled several hours of oral arguments. Bell said she didn’t anticipate an immediate ruling, but expected one by early September.
Jacobson told the judges the law is tainted by racial bias, pointing to the state’s history of denying Black residents the right to vote through felony disenfranchisement starting with Reconstruction.
He argued the disenfranchisement under the law continues even now — African Americans represent 42% of the people on probation, parole and post-release supervision and are unable to vote, even though they make up 21% of the state’s voting-age population.
“There can be no genuine dispute of facts that race is at least a motivating factor in why North Carolina disenfranchises people even when they are not incarcerated,” he told the judges. Completing probation or parole also requires burdensome fees and restitution that can extend their punishment time if not paid, the plaintiffs said in court documents.
The defendants’ lawyers acknowledged the state’s history in denying African Americans the right to vote. But they said the motivation of the law changes in the early 1970s, sought by Black legislators at the time, were designed to “overcome the discriminatory intent” of earlier versions that had denied the automatic restoration of voting rights.
The state’s attorneys, cited an expert witness who found the percentage of Black residents on probation, parole and post-release supervision and are disenfranchised was close to the percentage of felony convictions in the state involving Black defendants.
Keegan Callanan, a professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College, concluded that the law doesn’t contribute “to the discrepancies in the racial distribution of those voters who are disenfranchised,” a brief for the legislative defendants said. “Rather, it is the composition of the population of people who are convicted of felonies that contributes to the discrepancy.”
The judges declined on Wednesday to remove Callanan’s report from the case. The plaintiffs argued the professor lacked the necessary experience on North Carolina voting matters.
North Carolina is among 17 states where people are barred from re-registering to vote until they complete probation or other close supervision, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Last December, New Jersey and Kentucky eased voting restoration restrictions.