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Voters arrive at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina shortly after the polls opened on November 3, 2020. A state court on Monday ordered election officials to restore voting rights to about 56,000 formerly incarcerated people. (Photo: Grant Baldwin / AFP via Getty Images)

'Incredible': Court Restores Voting Rights for 55K Former Felons in North Carolina

While GOP lawmakers ready an appeal, voting rights advocates move to ensure formerly incarcerated people know about the ruling.

Julia Conley

Voting rights advocates in North Carolina on Tuesday applauded a ruling by a panel of three state Superior Court judges for taking "the first step" in restoring justice to tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies in the state. 

"If the North Carolina courts are expanding voting rights by removing felony disenfranchisement, I can't imagine they will allow a Republican gerrymander."
—Michael McDonald, University of Florida

A panel of the Superior Court voted 2-1 to restore voting rights to about 55,000 people who have been incarcerated for felonies in a decision that would terminate a state law which bars people from voting if they are still on probation, parole, or serving a suspended sentence. 

Republican lawmakers in the state vowed to appeal the decision promptly, but advocates who have been working to fight disenfranchisement in the state celebrated the victory, saying it would be the largest expansion of voting rights in North Carolina since the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed. 
 
"Yesterday was the first step in restoring the voice of those silenced," tweeted Forward Justice, a civil rights group based in Durham which joined several other organizations in filing a lawsuit challenging the law.
 
Voting rights advocates have said the law unfairly disenfranchises people who remain under supervision of the criminal justice system when they can't pay court fees and people who are given "community supervision" sentences instead of being sent to prison—in which case they continue paying taxes while being disenfranchised.
 
"Our biggest quarrels in this state have been over what groups of people have a voice at the ballot box to be included in 'We the People,'" Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, said at a press conference Monday. "Today, we enlarged the 'we' in 'We the people.'"
 
The ACLU called the ruling, which would make North Carolina the only state in the South to automatically restore voting rights to people after they're released from prison, "incredible news."
 
Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who studies American elections, said the Superior Court panel's ruling bodes well for civil rights in the state even as Republicans are expected to attempt a partisan redistricting process.
 
"If the North Carolina courts are expanding voting rights by removing felony disenfranchisement, I can't imagine they will allow a Republican gerrymander," McDonald said on social media.
 
The same panel ruled last year that the state law's requirement that formerly incarcerated people pay all court fees and fines before regaining their right to vote was "unenforceable," according to the Washington Post. 
 
GOP lawmakers said Tuesday that they plan to file an appeal before a state deadline for finalizing materials for the 2021 election and that they may attempt to appeal using their own attorney after the Democratic state attorney general, Josh Stein, said he was unable to file an immediate appeal because the ruling has not officially been written yet.
 
Advocates who sued over the state law said they would immediately begin outreach efforts to people who are formerly incarcerated to make sure they're aware of the ruling, and the state Board of Elections said it would immediately begin updating voter registration materials and information on its website to reflect the panel's ruling. 
 
"Starting tomorrow, we plan to start a voter registration drive across the state," Dennis Gaddy, founder of Community Success Initiative, another plaintiff in last year's lawsuit, told the News & Observer. 

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