RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Three social justice groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Wake County aiming to have the voting rights restored for about 70,000 convicted felons who have been released from prison or may not have served prison time.
Under North Carolina law, it’s a crime for a person convicted of a felony to vote or register to vote until they’ve completed all the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole.
The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: The Community Success Initiative, Justice Served NC and the state’s chapter of the NAACP.
“Not being able to vote affected me tremendously,” said Dennis Gaddy. He was convicted of violating the state’s Securities Act and served more than five years in prison.
Upon his release, he was still unable to vote until completing the remaining aspects of his sentence. He now runs the Community Success Initiative.
“Whenever it passes, it’s gonna have some impact somewhere. We didn’t think about 2020 when we did it. 2020 just happens to be the next election,” he said.
The plaintiffs argue that North Carolina’s law is unconstitutional, violating the free elections clause.
“They’re in our communities, paying taxes, contributing to our economy,” said Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice.
The lawsuit names Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger as defendants as well as the State Board of Elections.
In an email, Berger spokesperson Lauren Horsch wrote, “This latest lawsuit – which we have not seen yet – is another attempt from left-leaning attorneys to have activist judges decide what the laws in the state should be. If they cared about the integrity of the voting process, they should also be going after Governor Cooper for vetoing Senate Bill 250, which would have removed foreign citizens from the voting rolls.”
A spokesperson for Moore did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Board of Elections declined to comment.
Andy Jackson, an election policy analyst with the conservative Civitas Institute, said the current law in North Carolina is comparable to nearly two dozen other states.
“But, North Carolina is in the norm. A plurality of states, North Carolina is one of 21 states, that has people not being allowed to vote throughout their sentence,” he said. “It is part of your sentence. That is part of your debt to society. So, it makes sense that North Carolina doesn’t restore those kinds of rights until that debt is fully paid.”
The lawsuit comes a year before the critical 2020 general election, in which North Carolina is expected once again to feature a variety of highly contested races from the president to Senate to state-level offices.
A spokesperson for the state Republican Party declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment.
An audit by the State Board of Elections after the 2016 election found “441 open cases of voting by suspected felons.” It goes on to say, “Investigators were able to rule out more than 100 voters initially flagged as ineligible through the audit.
The agency notes some of those voters were unaware they were ineligible to vote and acknowledged more work needed to be done to educate those convicted of felonies about the status of their voting rights.
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