A poll worker pulls out a "I voted" sticker at the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain polling place in Buncombe County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press
A poll worker pulls out a "I voted" sticker at the First Baptist Church of Black Mountain polling place in Buncombe County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

UPDATE, 9:30 a.m., Sept. 13: The superior court decision giving 55,000 North Carolinians the right to vote while still serving felony sentences outside of prison is now on hold. On Sept. 10, the NC Supreme Court partially upheld  Republican legislators’ request to stay the decision from being put into effect. The Supreme Court allowed the people who already registered between Aug. 23 and Sept. 3 to stay registered, but blocked all further registrations of people still serving felony sentences pending the appeal to the superior court’s preliminary injunction. This is a developing situation and may be updated further. The article that follows is based on information that was available at the time of publication on Aug. 30.

The voting rights of 55,000 North Carolinians survived their first legal hurdle, with more on the way. 

On Aug. 23, N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Bell announced that for the first time since 1876, every person in North Carolina who is serving a felony sentence but is not in prison can legally register to vote and cast a ballot. This is a preliminary ruling from the court before it releases its full decision in mid-September at the earliest. 

This ruling came in response to a lawsuit brought by nonprofit legal advocacy organizations on behalf of people who had their voting rights taken away by the state’s laws. The lawsuit named the N.C. State Board of Elections and the state’s legislative leaders as defendants. 

Late Friday afternoon, the court released its written order explaining the legal reasoning for its decision.

Bell, joined by Judge Keith Gregory, wrote that “there is no denying the insidious, discriminatory history surrounding voter disenfranchisement and efforts for voting rights restoration in North Carolina.” 

Bell and Gregory signaled that the plaintiffs “have demonstrated a likelihood of success” on their constitutional challenges to North Carolina’s law that only gives people the right to vote back after they are completely finished with their felony sentences, rather than just released from prison. 

In a press release, Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, praised the decision and what it meant for the newly reenfranchised. 

“We are equally encouraged by the news we are receiving every day of more and more North Carolinians learning of this historic decision and exercising their fundamental right to vote … and engaging the community in education and registration drives to ensure that all who are impacted receive the good news,” Atkinson said.  

The third judge on the panel, John Dunlow, dissented, writing that he would have dismissed the lawsuit in its entirety

An uncertain future for the new voters

Phil Berger and Tim Moore, who helm the Republican-controlled state Senate and House, respectively, announced in a press release that they would challenge the court’s ruling. Due to a disagreement in how to proceed legally, Berger and Moore removed the state Department of Justice, which normally represents state defendants in lawsuits, from the case and hired their own private lawyer. 

That lawyer, David Thompson of the D.C. firm Cooper and Kirk, asked the court to stay its decision or not put it into effect until a higher court could hear an appeal. 

The judges denied the request. 

Berger, in a press release, challenged the court’s authority to give the right to vote back to people still serving felony sentences.

The next move is to appeal the court’s order granting a preliminary injunction, in which the legislative defendants will describe their legal reasoning for opposing the decision. 

The State Board of Elections has not yet said whether it will appeal the preliminary injunction. 

If the judges keep their current positions when they release the full decision, Republican defendants will have to decide if they want to appeal that order, too. The preliminary injunction ruling is only effective until the full ruling is released. 

If Berger and Moore are successful in their appeal, some of the newly enfranchised citizens could have their rights removed again by a higher court. 

Since people come on and off felony supervision every day, the court’s ultimate decision will affect hundreds of thousands of would-be voters over the next several months and years.

Want to vote?

For those who wish to register for elections taking place this fall, Sept. 10 is the voter registration deadline for Oct. 5 municipal elections. Oct. 8 is the deadline for the Nov. 2 municipal elections. Check online to see if there will be elections in your area. Register to vote online or through your county’s board of elections.

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Jordan Wilkie is a former Report for America corps member and former reporter at Carolina Public Press. To reach the newsroom, email us at news@carolinapublicpress.org.