RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A panel of state trial judges refused on Friday to halt its order restoring voting rights for tens of thousands of North Carolina residents convicted of felonies whose current punishments don’t include prison time.
The three judges denied the delay sought by attorneys for top Republican lawmakers on the same day the panel’s majority filed an explanation about why they authorized voting access for potentially 56,000 offenders in North Carolina otherwise unable to cast ballots. One of the judges announced that decision earlier this week, in advance of a written order. GOP lawmakers wanted the temporary delay while they appeal the ruling.
A trial concluded last week in a lawsuit filed in 2019 by several civil rights groups and ex-offenders challenging state law on the restoration of voting rights.
The two Superior Court judges — Lisa Bell and Keith Gregory — who agreed to issue Friday’s preliminary injunction wrote that the harm the offenders alleged they would experience by having to wait another election without voting was “both substantial and irreparable.”
The North Carolina Constitution forbids a person convicted of a felony from voting “unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.” A 1973 law laying out those restoration rules requires the “unconditional discharge of an inmate, of a probationer, or of a parolee.”
Friday’s order, however, said that election officials can’t deny voter registration to any convicted felon who is on probation, parole or post-release supervision.
The two judges pointed to evidence presented at last week’s trial that felony disenfranchisement had origins from a Reconstruction-era effort to intentionally prevent Black residents from voting. The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued the rules in place today still violated the state constitution on free speech and equal protection requirements.
“There is no denying the insidious, discriminatory history surrounding voter disenfranchisement and efforts for voting rights restoration in North Carolina,” Bell and Gregory’s order read.
Their order amended an injunction from last September that ruled outstanding restitution, fees or other court-imposed monetary obligations couldn’t prevent convicted felons from voting if they’ve completed all other portions of their sentence. The expanded injunction took effect earlier this week, as State Board of Elections workers finalized registration forms for this fall’s municipal elections.
Judge John Dunlow, a panel member who declined to issue the September 2020 injunction, wrote in Friday’s order that he would have refused to expand the injunction to more offenders, too.
A legal brief filed before the trial for House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger — some of the lawsuit’s defendants — acknowledged the history of felony disenfranchisement laws. But it said the 1973 law wasn’t motivated by discriminatory intent and treated all felons uniformly.
Berger and Moore this week replaced state government lawyers who represented them at trial with private attorneys because they said they were unhappy that Attorney General Josh Stein’s office wouldn’t commit to filing an appeal.