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Appeals courts asked to step in on NC offenders' voting case

Lawyers representing competing sides in a legal debate over when felony offenders in North Carolina should be able to vote again after punishments are meted out are asking appeals courts to step in.

Last week, a panel of trial judges struck down a nearly 50-year-old state law that prevents someone convicted of a felony from having voting rights restored while they are still on probation, parole or post-release supervision.

The restriction violates the state constitution in large part because it discriminates against Black residents, the trial-judge panel declared. The ruling could affect tens of thousands of people previously convicted of felonies who are prohibited from voting even after serving active prison or jail time. It's possible they could begin voting in the May 17 primary.

Republican legislative leaders are defending the law’s constitutionality, saying it applies to everyone equally. Through their attorneys, the lawmakers asked the Court of Appeals to block enforcement of last week's ruling, which otherwise allows these ex-offenders to successfully register to vote, while that ruling is challenged. This motion was filed Friday, shortly after the trial judge panel refused to stop enforcement of the ruling on its own during the appeal process.

On Monday, attorneys representing ex-offenders and civil rights groups who sued over the law in 2019 instead asked the state Supreme Court to take over the case before the Court of Appeals can intervene. “Exceptionally urgent questions” are contained within the case, the plaintiffs said, and a ruling by the Court of Appeals to delay the trial judges' ruling will lead to confusion so close to the primary.

“Individuals impacted by the judgment have already begun attempting to register to vote,” lawyer Daryl Atkinson wrote on behalf of the plaintiffs.

But the trial judges' decision, issued on the same day that voters could begin requesting mail-in absentee ballots for the primary, is what is causing the confusion, the GOP lawmakers said in their motion.

“All eligible voters stand to have their vote diluted by felons who are still ineligible to vote under the North Carolina Constitution," Nicole Moss wrote for the legislators.

More than 56,000 people in North Carolina were prevented from registering under the challenged law, according to evidence cited in a four-day trial that led to the March 28 ruling. There's no timetable on when the appeals courts could rule on the competing motions.

"These people are part of our community and if we're supposed to be rehabilitating them and allowing them to be a part of our community then voting is a part of that," said Mitchell Brown, an attorney challenging another state law blocking people with felony convictions from voting.

For now, the State Board of Elections told county election boards to mark the voter registration applications of felony offenders on probation, parole or post-release supervision that they receive as “incomplete” rather than register them. The board's top attorney last week cited the anticipated appeal and an “apparently conflicting” state Supreme Court order last September involving the same lawsuit.

Late last week, Atkinson accused the State Board of Elections of “openly violating” the trial judges' order by refusing to register the applicants. But the board has “acted in good faith at all times” and has not rejected these pending applications, state government attorney Mary Carla Babb wrote in response.

Requested absentee ballots are already being sent out to voters for the May 17 primaries.

WUNC's Rusty Jacobs contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

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