A preliminary ruling from a state panel of three judges indicates around 56,000 felons in North Carolina, who are no longer serving time, will now be allowed to register to vote.
In November 2019, several civil rights groups – including Protect Democracy, Forward Justice and Arnold & Porter – filed a lawsuit on behalf of six individuals and nonprofit organizations attempting to restore voting rights for those previously convicted of felonies (The Hill).
A previous three-judge panel ruled in September of last year that North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement law violated portions of the state’s constitution, which granted partial judgement for the plaintiffs. As a result, thousands had their voting rights restored, who, according to the civil rights groups, were on community supervision due to unpaid financial obligations.
On Monday, however, another three-judge panel ruled 2-1 to expand the voting restoration to the 56,000 North Carolina felons on post-release supervision, parole, or probation. Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell told participants during a brief hearing on Monday that the two judges would issue a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from denying voter registration to the convicted felons who meet that criteria (CNN).
No written order has been issued yet as the ruling was made verbally. Kellie Myers is the trial court administrator in the Wake County, North Carolina, judicial district, which is the one handling the case. She confirmed the preliminary injunction and said will take effect immediately for those convicted in both federal and state courts.
Due to the ruling, the North Carolina State Board of Elections wrote in a statement that the county boards of elections throughout the state “must immediately begin to permit such individuals to register to vote.”
The statement continued, “State board staff will work as quickly as possible to update communication materials and all forms and documents to comply with the order. Staff are also working with the Department of Public Safety to update data the State Board receives regarding individuals who are ineligible to register to vote due to a felony conviction.”
Civil and voting rights activist groups say the ruling signifies the largest expansion in the state since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the plaintiffs claimed the North Carolina law disproportionately affected black residents. Diana Powell, the executive director of Justice Served NC, said, “History has been made in North Carolina. A change has come!”
The ruling, however, could still possibly be appealed. Some in the state legislature feel it is a judicial overreach; Republican state Sen. Warren Daniel said the current law, which has been around for 50 years, outlines a path for felons to regain their voting rights. Daniel said in a statement, “If a judge prefers a different path to regaining those rights, then he or she should run for the General Assembly and propose that path.”