Felon voting rules delayed through primaries

Early voters wait to cast their ballots at the South Regional Library polling location in Durham, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — A North Carolina appeals panel on Tuesday delayed further a lower court ruling that had ordered election officials to immediately allow felony offenders still on probation or parole the ability to vote.

But the majority on the three-judge Court of Appeals panel only blocked the order through the upcoming primary elections — potentially allowing tens of thousands of people still subject to supervisory punishments to vote in November. The order, which also would apply to any runoff elections that are needed July 26, could be heard by the full 15-member appeals court or appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Mail-in absentee voting for the May 17 statewide primary and municipal elections is already underway, and early in-person voting begins Thursday. The State Board of Elections had told the court it needed to know by last week whether any changes to registration restrictions would occur to prepare computer systems in time.

The ruling stems from a March 28 order by trial judges that struck down a nearly 50-year-old state law that prevents someone convicted of a felony from having voting rights restored while they are still on probation, parole or post-release supervision. In a 2-1 decision, the trial judge panel declared the law violates the state constitution largely because it discriminates against Black residents and said people who are not in prison or jail for a felony conviction may lawfully register and vote.

Election officials had not immediately registered these felons, setting aside their applications as “incomplete” because of an anticipated appeal and a state Supreme Court order last September involving the same lawsuit.

An appeal was filed by Republican legislative leaders who were sued over the 1973 law, and three weeks ago the Court of Appeals temporarily blocked enforcement of the trial judges’ order while the court examined whether a more permanent delay be issued as other appeals continued.

On Tuesday, Court of Appeals Judges John Arrowood and Allegra Collins wrote that the registration rules prior to March 28 remained in place through May 17 and July 26 elections. “Thereafter, the North Carolina State Board of Elections is ordered to take actions to implement the (trial judges’ order) for subsequent elections,” their order read.

Court of Appeals Judge Jefferson Griffin, writing a dissenting opinion, said he would have extended the stay until all appeals are exhausted, especially since he said the trial court’s ruling stood a high likelihood of being overturned on appeal.

“This court’s order poses an unacceptable risk of diluting lawful votes and compromising the integrity of our election process,” Griffin wrote. “There is no reason to believe that any of the factors weighing in favor of (a ruling preserving the status quo) will change after the primary elections have ended.”

Griffin also took the unusual step of urging his other colleagues on the intermediate appeals court to rehear the case. A majority of the 15-member court are registered Republicans, including Griffin. Collins and Arrowood are registered Democrats.

Also pending is a request by the plaintiffs who successfully sued over the law for the state Supreme Court to take over the case and hear the broader appeal. Four of the seven justices are registered Democrats.

More than 56,000 people in North Carolina were prevented from registering under the challenged law, according to evidence cited in a four-day trial last year.

The state 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.” The 1973 law laying out those restoration rules requires the “unconditional discharge of an inmate, of a probationer, or of a parolee.”

The trial judges agreed with evidence presented at trial that linked the law to Reconstruction-era efforts to prevent Black people from voting. Lawyers for legislative leaders argue the trial court got it wrong when it declared the 1973 law was approved with discriminatory intent.