People on probation in North Carolina can now vote, after a court ruling that upended a law steeped in racism that disproportionately hurt Black North Carolinians.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect an appeal by NC legislative leaders.
Shakita Norman pays taxes through her work as a Jiffy Lube assistant manager and is striving for a better life for herself and her five children.
But the Wake County mom was barred, until this week, from voting and having a say in how the public schools her kids attend are run.
That’s because Norman is one of the 56,000 people in North Carolina, 42% of whom are Black, who couldn’t vote while serving out probation or parole sentences. Norman had been serving out her sentence on weekends in jail, but those were suspended since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, effectively keeping her from regaining her voting for an unknown period of time.
‘I should be able to have that, to have that moment,” Norman testified in court about her desire to vote. “I should be able to say something, and I want people that, in the future, that [are] in the situation that I’m in to be able to have that voice and be able to say something and it gets heard.”
A three-judge panel agreed with her this week, not mincing words in their findings that the law, historically steeped in racism, was unconstitutional and that those serving probation or parole sentences have a right to vote.
The “ruling unlocked the vote for those 56,000 people who are on probation, parole, living in our communities, paying taxes, taking care of families. Now they have a civic voice,” said Daryl Atkinson, an attorney with Forward Justice, a Durham-based civil rights group that spearheaded the litigation.
Not only that, but the Wake County panel of judges also agreed with Forward Justice that the state’s 150-year disenfranchisement of probationers was steeped in racial discrimination. The state’s first law barring those with felonies from voting was enacted in the 1870s, and expressly intended to suppress the rights of Black men.
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That disproportionate exclusion continues through modern times.
Today, more than 42% of North Carolinians on probation or parole and blocked from voting are Black, while 21% of North Carolina’s voters are Black. Indigenous and Latinx North Carolinians also face disproportionate exclusion rates compared to white probationers, but not to the same extent as the state’s Black population, Atkinson said.
Adding insult to injury, the felony disenfranchisement rule was also confusing, and inconsistent communications from probation departments left people unsure if they’d satisfied their probation terms or not, if fines on a case remained. Some who finished their probation sentences were still hesitant to vote, worried that they might somehow violate the law, testimony in court revealed.
It’s a lot simpler now, Atkinson said. If a person is living their life free in North Carolina and is not in prison, they can register to vote and cast a ballot.
The first opportunity for this group of people to vote comes during the May 17 primary election, and again in November for the high-stakes midterm elections. More information on how to register to vote is available here.
In Our Purple State, Each Vote Counts
In a state where election results can be razor thin at times, including the votes of those serving out probationary sentences could be hugely significant, Superior Court Judges Lisa Bell and Keith Gregory wrote in their majority opinion. (The third judge on the panel disagreed with them and wrote a dissent.)
Keeping this group from voting amounted to violating their constitutional right to participate in democracy and silenced a sizable group of citizens.
“Given how close elections often are in North Carolina, excluding such large numbers of would-be voters from the electorate has the potential to affect election outcomes,” the judges wrote.
One such close election occurred less than two years ago, when Republican Paul Newby replaced Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, as chief justice of the NC Supreme Court. Chief justice is an important position, leading the state’s judicial branch and setting policies that affect millions interacting with the court system. Newby won by a mere 401 votes out of more than 5.4 million ballots cast.
Racist Roots of Exclusion
Before this week’s ruling, North Carolina barred people from voting who were serving out felony sentences. Included in that number were those living their lives freely but on parole or serving out probationary sentences.
This exclusion harkens back to ugly chapters of North Carolina’s history, when the felony disenfranchisement rules were hammered out in the 1870s and used as a way to keep Black men from casting ballots. Women of all races were barred from voting until 1920.
Sheriffs in the years following Reconstruction could charge Black people with crimes at their discretion, and the disenfranchisement law built upon that injustice. One NC newspaper pushed for the felony disenfranchisement rule in 1876, claiming “the great majority of the criminals are Negroes” and that the bar on voting would “restrain their race from crime,” according to testimony present in court.
Until this week, 1.2% of the state’s overall Black population was barred from voting because of the current version of the felony disenfranchisement law. Some counties saw higher rates of exclusion, with more than 2% of the Black voting age population in 19 NC counties effectively being blocked from exercising their right to vote.
The ruling was appealed Wednesday afternoon by the Republican leaders of the state legislature, who unsuccessfully fought a prior ruling in the case.
For Atkinson, the court’s ruling was a recognition, at last, of those living in our communities who served their time and yet, continued to be stripped of their most basic right to vote.
“The preamble to our Constitution begins, ‘We the people, of the state of North Carolina,’” Atkinson said. “Our biggest fights in this state and in this country have been about who’s included in that ‘we.’’
Now, Atkinson said, “people who’ve been convicted of felonies who pay taxes, are dropping off kids, living in our community, are included in that ‘we.’”