The North Carolina Court of Appeals has stalled a law preventing ex-felons from having their right to vote restored as of Sept. 3, 2021. On Aug. 23, three judges sided with civil rights groups and ex-felons in granting voting rights to those released on probation or parole. However, upon its announcement, Republican lawmakers appealed the decision to the court of appeals. As a result, the improved law would not be enacted until the appeal saw trial.
This decision impacts 55,000 North Carolinian ex-felons and could conveniently alter upcoming municipal elections if the trial is delayed beyond voter registration deadlines. Many people have expressed their concerns regarding the origins of the law preventing ex-felons from registering to vote. The bill initially disenfranchised African Americans after the Civil War but was revised by legislators, including many Black lawmakers, in 1973. However, according to the Charlotte Observer, it has continued to impact the voting eligibility of Black residents disproportionately.
The lower court acknowledged this discrimination in the initial hearing and granted immediate enactment of the revised bill to ensure access to voter registration before the 2022 election. However, Republican lawmakers stunt any sense of urgency. For example, State Senator Warren Daniel of Burke County said, "If a judge prefers a different path to regaining those rights, then he or she should run for the General Assembly and propose that path." Moreover, there is fierce opposition to the revised bill in believing that the lower court's decision was a judicial overreach.
The immediate reinstatement of ex-felon's voting rights is essential to upcoming elections. North Carolina is one of the most notorious swing states, with over seven million registered voters. The ability of citizens on parole, probation or with completed sentences to vote can influence election results and adjust representation. Ex-convicts directly experience the consequences of lawmakers' decisions and, therefore, should have a voice in their future through elections.
Once an individual has served their sentence and reentered society, they cannot fully return their citizenship without the right to vote. It is irrationally cruel to strip people of their voting rights for non-violent drug offenses, misdemeanors and petty crimes. They are no less important to the electorate since their vote could decide the future of law enforcement reform.
In North Carolina and the rest of the country, Black citizens are disproportionately charged and imprisoned for minor infractions. Despite the 1973 revision of the bill, the root of the problem is far more entrenched in the legal system than this bill alone. Republican efforts to deracialize the issue refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our system that perpetuate the systemic silencing of Black voters. The GOP appeals case does not have a set date for trial, which might be a partisan ploy to deny new voters participation in next year's election.
During the week between the lower court's ruling and the appeal, many ex-convicts registered to vote. "It is not yet determined how many people may have registered to vote following the lower court's decision," N.C. Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon said, "Those people's voting rights are now in limbo."
The bill proposing to restore the ex-felon's voting rights is not a radical one. NPR reports that twenty states already grant full citizenship rights to the ex-felon upon their release from prison despite the right-wing backlash. Not only would this bill remedy the inconsistencies in voter rights, but it would also fairly enfranchise those who have paid their debt to society.