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Judges Restore Voting Rights For Thousands In NC With Felony Convictions, NC GOP Plan To Appeal

It is the largest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina since the Civil Rights era, according to a lead attorney representing formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions.

The case, brought before a state judicial panel, challenged the constitutionality of a North Carolina law that prevented the restoration of ballot access for state citizens convicted of felonies who are still on probation or parole.

The legislative defendants in the state superior court case, Community Success Initiatives v. Timothy K. Moore, say they see the ruling as an assault on the state's election integrity.

In a 2-1 decision, the three-judge panel issued a ruling by phone Monday morning modifying a preliminary injunction imposed last September, which lifted the restriction on voting rights for people on felony parole or post-release supervision due only to unpaid fines or fees, or around 5,000 formerly incarcerated people.

The now-modified injunction means that restoration could be expanded to around 56,000 people under post-release supervision for felony convictions, according to one of the lead attorneys in the case, Daryl Atkinson who is co-director of Durham-based Forward Justice advocacy and strategy organization.

Atkinson pointed out the state law, rooted in a racist statute devised during Reconstruction, disproportionately affected Black people in North Carolina.

"We represent 21% of the voting-age population, we represent 42% of the folks who are disenfranchised by this law," said Atkinson, who is Black.

"Thousands of Black people were disenfranchised prior to the court's ruling today. So, it is a tremendous day for civil rights and human rights in the state of North Carolina."

It is an especially joyous occasion for Dennis Gaddy, executive director of Community Success Initiatives, a non-profit that assists people with felony convictions and one of the primary groups behind the lawsuit.

In a telephone interview, Gaddy said denying voting rights to formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions hindered his group's work to help them rejoin society outside of prison.

"Because when a person can't vote," he said, "they seem to not have the excitement that one would have, especially when you're just coming back from prison and wanted to just turn your life around. You don't have a voice."

The ruling was especially personal for Gaddy because he had served time in prison for property crimes and then spent seven years under post-release supervision. During that time, Gaddy was denied the chance to vote in the 2008 election for his choice candidate, Barack Obama.

"And I come from a very civic-minded family where I would help my mom register people to vote in the 60s and rode with my dad, our precinct chair for 50 years, to the Board of Elections in Lumberton, North Carolina, the county seat for Robeson County," Gaddy recalled.

"And not to be able to vote for the first African American president in 2008, I was devastated because of that," he added.

As much as advocates like Gaddy and Atkinson are celebrating the ruling, the legislative defendants in the case are assailing it.

"This is an absurd ruling that flies in the face of our constitution and further casts doubt on election integrity in North Carolina," said Sam Hayes, general counsel to N.C. Speaker of the House Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), in an email statement.

"We will seek an immediate stay of this ruling pending appeal," Hayes added.

A spokesman for Senate Pres. Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) noted that it is the North Carolina Constitution that denies voting rights to people convicted of felonies unless specific legislation restores those rights. Therefore, critics of the ruling argue, if the state court enjoins the existing statute, no people convicted of felonies would be able to vote.

In an email statement, Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell) wrote: "These judges may think they're doing the right thing by rewriting laws as they see fit (without bothering to even explain their ruling), but each one of these power grabs chips away at the notion that the people, through their legislature, make laws. Judges aren't supposed to be oligarchs who issue whatever decrees they think best."

A written ruling from the judges is expected later this week. The court's decision on the merits of the case also is still pending.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.