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NC ruling OKs felons' voting rights despite unpaid court fees, costs
Judges rule prohibition violates state constitution
Published Thursday, September 10, 2020 8:00 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

A North Carolina Superior Court voted 2-1 to restore voting rights to former felons who can't afford to pay court fees or costs.

North Carolina felons who are on probation because they owe court fees or fines can now vote, enfranchising thousands of residents.

A Sept. 4 ruling by a Superior Court panel voted 2-1 that NCGS 13-1 violates the state constitution by denying the right to vote to people who can’t pay court costs. Because the law allows for a longer probation period for indigent felons, the court ruled the statute violates the Equal Protection clause and a ban on property qualification guaranteed under the constitution. The court granted plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. An estimated 60,000 former North Carolina felons are disenfranchised, according to the advocacy campaign Unlock Our Vote.

Voter rights advocates contend the ruling removes an economic barrier to voting.

“The court’s ruling is important because it recognizes the harsh reality of disproportionate treatment of people in poverty, especially within the criminal legal system,” said Laura Holland, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Fair Chance Criminal Justice project. “Although the decision did not provide all the relief sought by the plaintiffs, thousands of people are likely to have their right to vote restored in time for the upcoming election.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four North Carolina residents and community activist groups who conduct voter registration and education: Community Success Initiative, North Carolina NAACP, Justice Served NC and Wash Away Unemployment.

The litigation is part of a campaign by advocacy groups to restore voting rights to former felons in addition to voter education and registration initiatives.

“This ruling is a major victory for the thousands of North Carolinians who have been denied access to the ballot due to an inability to pay financial obligations. We are thrilled that the judges took this important step in the right direction in the continued fight for voting rights and equality in our state. Our fight continues for the full expansion of voting rights for all of those who have been convicted of a felony and live in our communities, who deserve an equal say in our democracy.” said Dennis Gaddy, executive director of Community Success Initiative, one of the plaintiffs.

Republicans slammed the ruling as judicial overreach.

“It is outrageous for these judges to change the rules for an election when absentee ballots have already started going out and voting has begun,” North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley said. “This is yet another example of why we need to elect conservative judges who will apply the law rather than re-write the laws they don’t like.”

The ruling marks a major milestone in a campaign led by people directly impacted by the criminal legal system to regain their right to vote before the November election.

“As Michelle Alexander has written, we never ended the racial caste system in the United States; we merely redesigned it, which is a failure of our democratic ideals,” said Farbod Faraji, counsel for Protect Democracy. The disenfranchisement of citizens on probation, parole, or post-release supervision has been a critical feature of that racial caste system, and it is long past time for it to end so the promise of democracy can be realized for all.”


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