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Three-judge panel hears challenge to North Carolina's felon voting rights law: Carolina Public Press's Jordan Wilkie

Keith Acree, NC Department of Corrections
State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC
Plaintiffs in a civil case think felons should regain the right to vote as soon as they're released; the state wants to stay with the status quo, which takes longer to re-enfranchise them.

This week a three-judge panel hears a challenge to the 1970s North Carolina law that governs when convicted felons regain the right to vote. Plaintiffs argue people should be re-enfranchised as soon as they’re released from prison, defendants for the state say the current system, which takes longer, should stay in place.

A section of the North Carolina state constitution, added in the 1870s, banned felons from voting. Perhaps surprisingly, that move is now accepted as a racially motivated attempt to suppress the Black vote by both sides of the current re-enfranchisement argument.

In the 1970s, Black lawmakers drafted new legislation to re-enfranchise felons after they had served their time — but the law was modified, by white lawmakers, to keep former felons from voting through their post-incarceration supervision periods, which could last years.

The question in the case of CSI v. Moore is whether the state law of 1973 — which determines how and when felons are re-enfranchised as voters — should be struck down. The plaintiffs argue the 1973 law continues the racist intent of the constitutional provision, but the state arguing the law is actually a racially-neutral fix to the legislation of the 1870s.

At stake are over 55,000 people who could become re-enfranchised voters, a significant population that could sway close elections, both locally and at the state level.

Reporting from Carolina Public Press:

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America Corps member and a lead contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press — he joined WHQR News Director Ben Schachtman to discuss his ongoing reporting.

BS: All right. Jordan Wilkie, thank you so much for joining us.

JW: I'm glad to be on.

BS: Okay. So this lawsuit that you've been reporting on takes on the North Carolina law that governs when convicted felons regain the right to vote. What does that law say right now?

JW: In large part that law says that when people are convicted of a felony, they have a right to regain the right to vote. And that happens under current law after they've served all of their time in prison -- and after they've served any community supervision, which includes probation and what's called post-release supervision, and to much smaller extent parole, but that was done away with in North Carolina a long time ago.

BS: So from your reporting, it sounds like both sides actually agree, at least that the felon disenfranchisement provision in the Constitution and the original law restoring the right to vote were racist, is that accurate?

JW: It's really important to note that there are two parts here, there's the constitutional provision for felon disenfranchisement which was passed in 1876. And that happened at a time of just severe white backlash to the advancements that Black people had made after the Civil War. And history really clearly shows that the interest in found disenfranchisement and the interest in putting it in the constitution were clearly racially motivated and intended to disenfranchise black people. During the court hearings and the opening arguments on Monday for this trial. That historic argument was presented by the plaintiffs trying to change the current law. And that presentation of at least the constitutional provision and 1876 law, were agreed to by the defendants,who are representing the state, legislative defendants, in this case. And you know, that was pretty remarkable to me.

BS: But surely the plaintiffs and the defendants don't agree on everything. Where do they disagree?

JW: Where they disagree, is on how that racial disenfranchisement and that racially motivated interest in passing a law applies to the 1971 to 1973 rewrites of this legal, re-enfranchising piece of state law.

BS: So how does this affect people and elections in North Carolina now?

JW: Well, today, there's an expert named Frank Baumgartner, he's a professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. And all of his information is about the number of people who are disenfranchised in North Carolina, the fact that black people in North Carolina are severely disproportionately disenfranchised, and the fact that there have been a lot of elections in the state that have been decided by smaller margins than the total number of people who are disenfranchised.

And you know, we can't go back and rerun elections and rewrite history. So we don't know how many of those elections would have had different outcomes. But we know that just based on statistics, the smaller the margin of an election, and the greater difference with the number of people who are disenfranchised, the more likely it is that a different result could have come out of that if this group of people were allowed to vote.

I just want to localize it for your listeners too, in New Hanover, the Board of Education elections were decided by much smaller votes, rates than the number of people who are disenfranchised in the 2018 elections as well.

BS: Yeah, that puts it in context. Alright, so for the lawsuit, what's next?

JW: The next steps are to finish up the trial this week, wait, however long for the three judge panel to issue its decision, and then wait for appeals that come after that there's a decent chance that this could go up to the state Supreme Court.

BS: All right. Well, Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America Corps member and lead contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Jordan, thank you so much for being with us.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.