Voting Rights Restored to 55,000 North Carolinians

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Carolina Public PressWritten by , Carolina Public Press.

The largest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971 and the largest expansion of disproportionately Black enfranchisement since the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 is happening now.

Effective immediately, the state can no longer prevent people convicted of a state or federal felony, and who are still under supervision but are not in prison, from voting. That is more than 55,000 people.

In a last-minute call, Judge Lisa Bell told the parties to the CSI v. Moore lawsuit that she and Judge Keith Gregory decided to extend their preliminary injunction from last year to immediately apply to everyone on “community supervision,” rather than just those serving sentences due to financial obligations.

Several of the plaintiffs and their lawyers started smiling when Bell announced the decision on a video call.

“When I heard the ruling, I wanted to run in the street and tell everybody that now you have a voice,” said Diana Powell, the executive director of Justice Served N.C., an organizational plaintiff in the case, during a press call in the afternoon.

“I am so excited for this historic day,” Powell said.

Judge John Dunlow, the other member of the three-judge panel, opposed the decision.

Bell said that a written order could be expected as soon as Friday, though it may take longer.

Bell did not elaborate on the logic for extending last year’s preliminary injunction or why she and Gregory were siding with the plaintiffs in the case. The call was so last-minute that there was not a court reporter and therefore the call is not considered a court record, Bell said. It was simply to announce the decision.

“The court as of today is granting plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction that prohibits the state defendants from refusing to register to vote any person on community supervision, whether a state felony conviction or a federal conviction,” Bell said.

This group of North Carolinians has not been able to cast a ballot since the state first decided to strip the right to vote from people convicted of felonies back in 1876.

North Carolina is now one of 22 states and the only state in the former Confederacy to automatically restore voting rights to people when they are released from prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This also means that people convicted of felonies and sentenced to probation, but not prison time, will retain their right to vote.

The order will be appealed, according to reporting by the New & Observer. Sam Hayes, the general counsel for North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, said they would appeal the order and seek to put it on hold. Neither Moore nor his legislative codefendant, leader of the state senate Phil Berger, responded to Carolina Public Press.

The State Board of Elections said its attorneys “are reviewing the decision and will consider the written ruling upon its release,” according to a press release. No formal appeals can be filed until the judges file their written orders with the court.

Meanwhile, the Board issued orders to county boards of election to immediately permit non-incarcerated people serving felony sentences to register to vote.

The plaintiffs, who include groups that help people reenter society after incarceration, the state chapter of the NAACP and people convicted of felonies, first filed their lawsuit in November 2019.

In September 2020, the judges issued a preliminary injunction and a motion for summary judgment that allowed about 5,000 people who were only still on probation or supervision because they owed fines or fees to vote in the 2020 general elections.

The trial for the case was not heard until last week. Bell’s announcement today is an extension of the preliminary injunction from last year, not the decision from the full trial, which is expected at the very earliest in mid-September.

This decision is only temporary until the judges make a full ruling, though it is a strong indication that the judges will again side with the plaintiffs.

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email [email protected] to contact him.