WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today led a coalition of five Attorneys General in opposing a North Carolina law that attaches burdensome barriers to voting for former felons who have returned to their communities. Under North Carolina law, former felons only regain the right to vote after they satisfy the terms of their probation, parole, or post-release supervision, including the payment of legal financial obligations, which prevents citizens from voting long after their release from incarceration. In an amicus brief filed in Community Success Initiative v. Moore, the coalition argues that the North Carolina law unlawfully conditions voting on court-ordered financial obligations and disproportionately harms African Americans. The coalition also notes that studies show that expanding the right to vote helps returning citizens reintegrate into their communities and promotes public safety. The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to restore the vote to former felons.
“Formerly incarcerated citizens should regain their right to vote without burdensome voting requirements that effectively block them from the ballot box,” said AG Racine. “Disenfranchisement laws disparately harm African Americans and low-income residents, suppressing their voices and stripping them of political power. Restoring an individual’s right to vote upon release helps them successfully reintegrate in their communities by fostering civic participation and reduces recidivism.”
Felon disenfranchisement in the United States is the product of a patchwork of state laws, which vary widely. The District of Columbia and seventeen states automatically restore a former felon’s voting rights upon release from incarceration. Efforts to expand the right to vote embrace the notion that allowing former felons to vote benefits both the returning citizens and the communities they rejoin. However, as of 2016, approximately 4.7 million former felons in the United States—about 1 in every 40 adults—have completed the terms of their incarceration and are living in states where they are denied the right to vote.
North Carolina’s felon disenfranchisement law conditions the restoration of voting rights upon a former felon completing all the terms of their probation, parole, or post-release supervision. This requirement extends the period of disenfranchisement for convicted felons well beyond the date of their release from incarceration. Further, because the payment of court costs, fees, and restitution is a condition of probation, individuals who have otherwise completed the terms of their probation but cannot afford to pay remain indefinitely disenfranchised. As a result, about 70,000 individuals in North Carolina cannot vote, despite being released from incarceration, and approximately 40 percent of these disenfranchised individuals are African American.
In this amicus brief, the states collectively support the plaintiffs’ challenge to the North Carolina felon disenfranchisement law because:
- Laws like North Carolina’s harm low-income returning citizens: States that condition a former felon’s restoration of voting rights on payment of all legal financial obligations disadvantage low-income residents by indefinitely depriving them of the right to vote. Yet there is little evidence that disenfranchisement compels former felons to pay outstanding legal financial obligations if they do not have the money to do so.
- Felon disenfranchisement disproportionately harms African Americans: States have recognized the importance of restoring voting rights to returning citizens given the disparate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws on minority communities. Mass incarceration has resulted in voting rights disparities for people of color. As of 2016, over 7.4 percent of the African American voting age population in the United States could not vote, as compared with only 1.8 percent of the non-African American population. There is also evidence that misinformation about felon disenfranchisement laws is more likely to deter eligible and registered African American voters from casting ballots than their white counterparts.
- Expanding the right to vote to former felons promotes successful reentry and enhances public safety: Over the past twenty years, states have restored the right to vote to more than one million citizens by reforming their felon disenfranchisement laws. These state efforts reflect an understanding that restoring voting rights to former felons fosters civic participation and helps these individuals fully reintegrate into their communities. In fact, several studies have shown that allowing former felons to vote reduces their likelihood of committing further crimes.
A copy of the amicus brief is available here: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-05/Community-Success-Initiative-v-Moore-Amicus.pdf
AG Racine is leading today’s friend-of-the-court brief and is joined by state Attorneys General from California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Nevada.