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The N.C. Board of Elections is trying to figure out which individuals are affected by a court decision last week that restored the right to vote to thousands of North Carolina residents.
On Sept. 4, a three-judge panel of Superior Court judges ruled that people convicted of felonies cannot be denied the right to vote if they have completed their sentences except for the payment of fines and fees.
The order, issued by a two-judge majority, said basing the restoration of the right to vote on the ability to pay fines and fees violates two separate sections of the state constitution, the equal protection clause and the ban on property qualifications.
“Obviously, I’m excited and just overjoyed … that we’ve cracked the glass ceiling, finally,” said Dennis Gaddy, a plaintiff in the case.
Gaddy knows well the consequences of disenfranchisement. He founded the Community Success Initiative to help people reenter society after incarceration. He served over five years in prison for financial crimes. He came from a very civically minded family.
“My mom was really, really, really heavy with the Democratic Party when I was growing up,” Gaddy said.
She worked to register voters, while his father was the precinct chair of the local voting site.
“I came home from prison and while I was on 5 1/2 years of probation, there was an election, the election for the first Black president, and I missed it,” Gaddy said. “I felt that.”
The court ruled that continuing to prevent people from registering and voting because they owed fines and fees would constitute an “irreparable loss to their fundamental rights guaranteed by the North Carolina Constitution.”
The decision is part of a larger case, CSI v. Moore, in which a coalition of civil rights groups sued the state in an attempt to restore the right to vote to the 55,000 North Carolinians who were convicted of a felony but are not in prison. Rather, they are on probation or on “post-release supervision” after being released from prison.
Other aspects of the case, including whether the law was written with a racially discriminatory intent and whether it violates the free elections clause of the state constitution, will move to trial.
The court unanimously dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim that the state’s disenfranchisement law violated the freedom of speech and assembly clauses.
During the court hearing on Aug. 19, Daryl Atkinson, co-director of the Durham-based civil rights group Forward Justice and the legal counsel representing Gaddy and other plaintiffs, stressed the importance of this fall’s election.
Eligible voters, he said, will cast votes on issues that can “literally result in life or death.”
Finding the would-be voters
To follow the court’s order, the state Board of Elections needs to figure out who qualifies to be able to vote.
When a person is convicted of a felony, the board is notified, and that person is removed from the voter rolls. The board maintains a running list of people convicted of felonies who are ineligible to vote. As people finish their sentences, they are removed from that list.
Now, the board is working with the state Department of Public Safety to find the people who are under state supervision exclusively for owing fines and fees and make sure they are not prevented from registering and voting.
“North Carolina just doesn’t have good data on how many people — but for their failure to pay legal, financial obligations — have been disenfranchised, and their rights are now restored,” Atkinson said.
The number, though, was near 5,000, Atkinson said, though that’s based on analysis from several months ago.
State won’t appeal, legislators might
In a press release Thursday, Attorney General Josh Stein announced that the state Board of Elections would not appeal the court’s ruling and that it is working to find the affected people.
“Once this determination has been made, the state board will issue guidance and provide information, including voter registration forms, to affected people on how to register to vote,” the release said.
Neither the press release nor the state board gave a timeline for finding and notifying these would-be voters.
The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 9. If any voters miss that deadline, they can register and vote simultaneously at any one-stop voting site in their county of residence from Oct. 15-31. If registered on time, voters can also request a ballot by mail.
The General Assembly, also named as a defendant in the case, has not announced whether it will appeal and has not responded to questions for this story. If it does appeal, a higher court could again take the right to vote away from those affected by the Superior Court ruling.
In his dissent, Superior Court Judge John Dunlow, who is assigned to Franklin, Granville, Person, Vance, and Warren counties, wrote that he would have ruled in favor on all fronts with the defendants rather than this limited measure.
If the decision holds, it will affect more than the people given the right to vote in this fall’s election. The decision should not be thought of as a “static moment,” Atkinson said.
“There will be other elections in the future and there will be other people who won’t have the ability to pay their legal, financial obligations, and the court said that that inability to pay will not be a reason for your continued disenfranchisement,” Atkinson said. “And that’s significant.”
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