NC's highest court: Felons who registered recently can vote

Posted at 5:09 PM, Sep 11, 2021

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Certain felons released from prison or never incarcerated and who registered to vote recently in North Carolina will remain eligible as litigation over their right to vote continues, the state's highest court has ruled.

The state Supreme Court, in a lawsuit challenging when North Carolina residents convicted of felonies have their voting rights restored, essentially declined to reinstate a order last month that declared any offender no longer behind bars could register. That order would have affected about 56,000 people who were still serving probation, parole or other supervision, according to court records.

On Sept. 3, the state Court of Appeals blocked last month's trial order amid pending litigation filed by civil rights groups and ex-offenders challenging state law on the restoration of voting rights. Those plaintiffs immediately appealed to the Supreme Court, which late Friday declined to block the Court of Appeals order, but also declared it would be implemented only going forward.

That means a felony offender who registered between Aug. 23 and Sept. 3 -- when the trial judges' order was in place and based solely on that order -- can't be removed from voting rolls and "are legally registered voters" until told otherwise, the Supreme Court wrote.

So those offenders who registered will be able to vote in this fall's municipal elections. Early in-person voting for October elections begins Thursday. It wasn't immediately known how many people who qualified under the Sept. 23 order actually registered.

The plaintiffs in the 2019 lawsuit that led to the orders and appeals said Friday's ruling was disappointing but urged those who registered to cast ballots. The lawsuit contends current state law on restoring voting rights is racially discriminatory by disproportionately affecting Black offenders and violates the state constitution.

"We are now a step closer to our goal, and even in the face of this temporary delay of full justice, we are celebrating," the plaintiffs said in a news release Saturday. "We remain committed to the vision of an equal democracy, untainted by laws illegally designed to disenfranchise Black people in this state."

State Republican legislative leaders, some of whom are named defendants in the lawsuit along with the State Board of Elections, have said the trial court went too far with its expansive order so close to an election.

"The Supreme Court made the right call," Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican and co-chairman of the Senate elections committee, said on Saturday. "A judge cannot just write a new law because he or she doesn't like the old one."

The order was signed by Associate Justice Tamara Barringer on behalf of the court, which is composed of four registered Democrats and three Republicans. There was no legal explanation for the decision.

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

But the Aug. 23 order had said election officials couldn't deny voter registration to any convicted felon who is only on probation, parole or post-release supervision. A plaintiff's attorney said last month the trial court's decision would represent the largest expansion of North Carolina voting rights since the 1960s. There are more than 7.1 million registered voters in North Carolina.

Democrats were in charge of the legislature when the law, which lowered hurdles for ex-felons to vote, was approved. The GOP defendants said there's no evidence the law is carried out today in a racially discriminatory manner.

Last year, trial judges ruled felony offenders couldn't be denied the right to vote if the reason their rights hadn't been restored was due to unpaid fines or restitution. The Supreme Court said on Friday that rule remains in effect.