By: Emma Postel
On September 3, 2021, the North Carolina Court of Appeals stayed an order from the North Carolina state Superior Court, preventing 56,000 North Carolinians with felony conviction histories from registering to vote. This Court of Appeals order reinstates the voting restrictions established by law in 1973, preventing the affected North Carolinians still under state supervision from registering to vote, and as a result, prevents them from voting in the upcoming fall municipal elections.
The decision was “immediately appealed” by the plaintiffs, who maintained that the “exclusion of our neighbors’ voices is morally and constitutionally wrong.” On the other hand, the defendants in this case believe this reversal is good news, stating that the now overruled Superior Court order was a judicial overreach, essentially amounting to “judges…replac[ing] laws they don’t like with new ones.” North Carolina Republican State Senators further questioned the Superior Court’s discretion, suggesting “[i]f a judge prefers a different path to regaining those rights, then he or she should run for the General Assembly and propose that path.”
The now overruled August 23 Superior Court order marked a momentous change in status quo for North Carolinians with felony conviction histories, who, under the North Carolina Constitution and subsequent law, were prevented from voting “unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.” Additionally, under a 1973 state law, both imprisoned people convicted of felonies and those on parole or probation were barred from voting in North Carolina elections. Under the 1973 law, only if a felon was “unconditionally discharge[d]” from the judicial system, meaning they were no longer under any form of state supervision, would they be permitted to vote.
The September 3 order is a disappointing reversal for the proponents of voter restoration after a positive ruling in the court below. According to The Sentencing Project (The Project), a non-profit organization that works to promote sentencing reforms, voting laws aimed at people with felony convictions were largely passed in the South during the Jim Crow era, in an effort to “limit the political power of Black men,” and continue to disproportionately affect black Americans today. The Superior Court order seemed to address this disparity, requiring that North Carolina allow people who “are on parole, probation or supervised release to register to vote.” The Superior Court found that the 1973 law violated the North Carolina Constitution, specifically the Equal Protection clause. The court additionally found the property qualification, a requirement under North Carolina law that people with prior felony convictions must pay all fines and fees associated with their probation before they are released, unconstitutional as it conditioned “the right to vote on a person’s ability to pay fines, fees, and other debts associated with their previous felony conviction.”
If the North Carolina Supreme Court fails to rule on the plaintiff’s appeal soon, the September 3 decision is likely to result in a great deal of confusion for those voters this decision affects, as after the August 23 Superior Court order voting drives began trying to get North Carolinians with felony histories registered to vote. Now, it is left to the North Carolina Supreme Court to determine whether or not those affected North Carolinians may register to vote this fall.