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People with felony convictions under supervision are barred from voting. Let them be heard.

August 18, 2020
North Carolina's felony disenfranchisement law mutes the political voices of Black residents, preventing them from meaningfully changing systems that, like the criminal justice system, so often discriminate against them.

This commentary was originally published in The News & Observer.

Just weeks before a competitive election in North Carolina, the state Superior Court is assessing the constitutionality of a law disenfranchising non-incarcerated people with a felony conviction. The decision the court reaches following its hearing this week will impact the voting rights of 56,000 citizens.

Most of the people barred from voting because of a felony conviction in North Carolina are not behind bars. They are active members of their communities, completing a term of probation, parole, or post-release supervision.

While whites are the majority who are disenfranchised during supervision, the burden of the law disproportionately falls on Black North Carolinians.

Black adults comprise 22% percent of the state’s voting population but make up 42% of those disenfranchised while on community supervision.

Historians have shown that after the Civil War, when federal law enfranchised African American men, North Carolina leaders revised their Constitution to disenfranchise citizens for any felony conviction, in addition to preserving the pre-war disenfranchisement of those convicted of “infamous” crimes.

In the 1970s, three African American representatives to the General Assembly succeeded in making voting rights restoration automatic, without requiring judicial approval. However, they could not persuade their colleagues to refranchise citizens completing the terms of their sentence while living in the community.

In December 2019, Community Success Initiative, the North Carolina NAACP, and other civil rights organizations sued to prove that the state’s disenfranchisement law is racially discriminatory and violates the state Constitution’s guarantees for free elections, free speech, and equal protection of laws.

Research and experience demonstrate that the criminal justice system in North Carolina, as nationwide, disproportionately entraps Black residents and subjects them to more severe outcomes at every stage of the process. Black Americans are more likely to be aggressively policed, prosecuted, and to receive harsher sentences than whites. These disparate outcomes go beyond what can be accounted for by racial disparities in criminal offending.

For example, Black drivers in North Carolina are about twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped on the highways. Once pulled over, they are twice as likely to be searched, even though police are less likely to find contraband on searched Black drivers than on searched white drivers.

For cases that go to trial, the Jury Sunshine Project found that in 2011, the state’s prosecutors crafted juries that are less sympathetic to defendants of color by removing twice as many potential Black jurors as white jurors.

On community supervision—either after or in lieu of incarceration—Black residents face greater challenges to successfully reenter society and satisfy the conditions of their community supervision. In addition to being more likely to face discrimination related to their conviction, Blacks have less income and wealth than whites to pay off court fines and fees. Black North Carolinians have nearly twice the unemployment rate of whites, earn two-thirds the level of income, and have one-seventh as much wealth.

Current law mutes the political voices of Black North Carolinians, preventing them from meaningfully changing systems that, like the criminal justice system, so often discriminate against them.

In recent years, a growing number of states have scaled back felony disenfranchisement laws because they contradict American democratic principles and discriminate against African Americans. Reforms in 25 states in the last two decades have reinstated voting rights for over one million Americans, according to The Sentencing Project.

As the nation casts its eyes on North Carolina this election cycle, the state, and nation, is best served by a fully engaged and representative electorate. It is time to eliminate such racially biased obstacles to democratic participation, and for the State’s disenfranchisement law to be declared unconstitutional.

Henderson Hill is a board member of The Sentencing Project, co-director of the criminal justice initiative RedressNC, and senior staff attorney at ACLU/Capital Punishment Project.
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