Fulfilling a promise over 50 years in the making, a North Carolina Court extended the right to vote to people formerly incarcerated for felonies; lawyers and advocates say this is the single largest grant of voting rights in North Carolina since the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.
In a 2-1 decision, a North Carolina State Superior Court panel of judges found that a law disallowing formerly incarcerated people from voting unless they have completed probation or parole was unconstitutional. The written opinion is expected later this week.
“Our biggest quarrels and fights in this state have been and continue to be who gets to have a civic voice to be included in that ‘we the people,’” said attorney Daryl Atkins, co-director of Forward Justice, during a Monday afternoon press conference. “For centuries, women and Black folks were not included in that ‘we the people.’ This lawsuit was about us, making sure that we include the 56,000 North Carolinians who live in our communities paying taxes every day dropping kids off at school, but serve in community supervision for felony convictions.”
Adding 56,000 new voters to the rolls could shift the state’s political landscape in upcoming elections. It could also pave the way for the state to expand the number of Black senators in Congress.
Former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Black woman, is one of several vying for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2022. Only 11 Black senators have ever served in Congress. Sens. Tim Scott and Rev. Raphael Warnock are the only Black senators from the south in over a century.
Executive Director of Community Success Initiative Dennis Gaddis added that expanding the right to vote to those on probation and parole allowed people “to have a voice and to be able to have a say in their communities and in their families and in their own lives.” He added that this was not just about the 56,000 people now eligible to vote but the people who will be released in the coming years.
During a Monday afternoon press, several of those present also addressed concerns about the public being upset about felony rights restoration. To them, anyone upset about rights being restored to people who are no longer incarcerated is missing the point about returning to society.
Diana Powell, executive director of Justice Served, said that people who paid their debt to society while inside a facility and then re-entered a community should have their rights restored. “A person that has to pay taxes should have a voice in that society, in that community that he lives, works, and plays every day,” Powell said bluntly. So if you’re paying taxes, then you should have a right to vote.”
GOP opponents of the law pledged to appeal the decisions. Some members of the state GOP even argued that holding the law unconstitutional does not automatically re-enfranchise people absent an act of the legislature. In a North Carolina Public Radio segment, a republican senator claimed the decision was a power grab.
Despite the “changes” lawmakers claim to have adopted post-civil rights movement, a report filed as a part of the litigation indicates that Black voters are disenfranchised at nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts. Black residents comprise 21 percent of the voting-age population but are 42 percent of those disenfranchised.
The litigation has been one part of the Unlock Our Vote Campaign, consisting of direct community engagement and outreach. Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said the next step would be voter registration drives in partnership with the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance.
As the fight to protect the right to vote continues across the country, the importance of expanding voting rights ahead of the 2022 midterm election cannot be underscored. People disenfranchised due to a felony conviction and their loved ones are an emerging voting bloc, with the potential to shift the realm of possibility, whether it’s increasing the number of Black senators in Congress or adding new voices to local and state government.
“Morally speaking, this type of disenfranchisement is the product of an explicitly racist effort after the Civil War to suppress the political power of African Americans,” said Spearman. “It is time to unlock the vote. And today, the vote has been on locked.”