Just in Time: North Carolina Court Lifts Fines for Felonies, Expands Voting Base

By Shani Saxon Sep 09, 2020

The eligible voter pool just expanded significantly in North Carolina.

The Wake County Superior Court ruled on Friday (September 4) to end the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of residents who owe fines and fees related to a felony conviction. The court’s decision signals a broader ruling on the horizon that “could restore voting rights to 70,000 more North Carolinians on probation or parole,” Slate reports. 

An estimated 70,000 North Carolina residents are unable to vote because they are on parole or probation, according to experts and a Slate report. More than 100,000 people are disenfranchised because they owe fees, fines and other debts to the courts. “The average probationer owes at least $2,400 in financial obligations,” according to Slate. 

Friday’s 2-1 court ruling proved to be a limited victory for a group of voting rights advocates who filed a 2019 lawsuit to restore voting rights to all disenfranchised citizens. 

Reports Slate:

"The court found that North Carolina had imposed an unconstitutional ‘property qualification’ on the right to vote while unlawfully discriminating against the indigent. Its order restored suffrage to any resident denied the ballot solely because they cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines and fees. It also clarified that anyone who has finished probation but still owes money can vote. And it announced that the deeper issue—whether the entire regime is tainted by illicit racial bias—is open to dispute. In the next few months, then, the court will also decide whether it must strike down felon disenfranchisement for all North Carolinians on probation or parole." 

The two judges in the majority, Lisa Bell and Keith Gregory, acknowledged in their decision that North Carolina’s disenfranchisement laws are rooted in upholding White supremacy, according to Slate. The dissenting judge, John Dunlow, “faulted the majority finding ‘discriminatory intent’ as a ‘motivating factor’ behind the law,” Slate reports. In reality, however, the majority didn’t go so far as to make this conclusion just yet.

According to Slate, North Carolina’s disenfranchisement rules, similar to others around the country, were created to perpetuate White supremacy:

"After Reconstruction, racist Democrats in the state sought to revoke Black citizens’ suffrage. They accomplished this task, in part, through vague criminal laws that stripped convicted felons of their civil rights—then enforced these laws disproportionately against Black people. North Carolina’s current statute is rooted in an 1877 law spearheaded by a representative who later presided over the lynching of three Black men. At the time, Democrats argued that felon disenfranchisement was necessary to stop ‘the honest vote of a white man’ from being ‘off-set by the vote of some negro.’ Its purpose, alongside other Jim Crow measures like the literacy test, was to ‘secure white supremacy.’”

Friday’s ruling is critical because North Carolina is one of eight swing states that could become a crucial battleground during the 2020 election. 

According to Slate, Republican officials haven’t said whether they will appeal Friday’s ruling. If they do decide to appeal, Republicans probably won’t win in front of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which has a 6-1 liberal majority. 

It may only be a matter of time before North Carolina courts strike down felony conviction disenfranchisement for all North Carolinians on probation or parole. According to Slate, “Bell and Gregory think North Carolina’s felon disenfranchisement scheme is unconstitutional, but they’ll reach that conclusion after a full trial, not at this preliminary stage, two months out from an election.”