Some 56,000 North Carolinians regained their voting rights thanks to a court ruling Monday that found people on parole or probation for felonies should be able to vote. The ruling represents the largest expansion of voting rights in the state since 1965’s Voting Rights Act, according to Durham civil rights group Forward Justice.
“Starting today, if a person can just say, ‘I am not in jail or prison for a felony conviction,’ then that person can register, they can vote freely,” said Stanton Jones, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs challenging the law, at a news conference following the decision.
During the court case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that North Carolina’s laws barring people with felony convictions were designed to keep black people from voting following the Civil War, saying that effect continues today. Before this ruling, the state only restored voting rights to those with felony convictions after they had completed their entire sentence, including probation, and paid off any related fines. Under the new decision, as long as a person is no longer in jail, they are eligible to vote.
In opening arguments, the Raleigh News & Observer reported, Jones pointed out that while black people comprise 21 percent of the state’s voting-age population, they also represent 42 percent of the people who lost their voting rights because of a felony conviction. This fact “is no surprise,” Jones said, “because that’s exactly what it was designed to do.”
Republican lawmakers who opposed the challenge to the law argued in court that while the initial law barring those convicted of felonies from voting was designed as a racist law, it was updated in the 1970s to be less so. But still, disparities persist.
“That the legislature has eliminated some parts of the original racist law from 1877 doesn’t give them a free pass on keeping the other ones,” Forward Justice’s co-director, Daryl Atkinson, said to the Carolina Public Press.
“The disparities by race are very, very high,” UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner told the Press. “No matter how we look at the data, at the statewide level, black [voters] are just disenfranchised at a much higher rate compared to whites.”
The ruling has not yet been written, but the judges announced their 2-1 decision on Monday. An attorney for the lead defendant in the case has said GOP legislators plan to appeal immediately.