In North Carolina, roughly 70,000 individuals are prohibited from voting because they have a prior felony conviction, and in many cases individuals are disenfranchised solely because of their inability to pay court fees. Black individuals, who represent only about 20 percent of North Carolina’s voting population, make up 40 percent of those disenfranchised while on probation, parole, or a suspended sentence. Black men make up only 9.2 percent of North Carolina’s voting population, but comprise 40 percent of the male probation population in the state.
Article VI, § 2(3) of the North Carolina Constitution restricts the right to vote for individuals who have been convicted of a felony. However, § 2(3) does not spell out how the right to vote is restored; it only specifies that the right shall be restored in “the manner prescribed by law.” Plaintiffs’ action challenges the “manner prescribed by law” – General Statute (“N.C.G.S.”) § 13-1 – which requires that North Carolinians who have been convicted of a felony be “unconditionally discharged” from incarceration, probation, parole, or a suspended sentence prior to getting their voting rights restored. The requirement that a person complete any term of parole or post-release supervision can delay restoration of the right to vote by at least one year after the person’s release from incarceration, and the requirement that a person complete any term of probation imposes delays that are typically even longer and of uncertain duration. Furthermore, because North Carolina law requires the payment of court costs, fees, and restitution as a condition of probation, the statute effectively conditions the right to vote on a person’s ability to pay. In other words, the statute requires that people released from incarceration, or people who were convicted of felonies and placed on community supervision, pay all financial obligations before regaining the right to vote. Moreover, while North Carolina law mandates that the State Board of Elections inform people of their loss of voting rights after a felony conviction, North Carolina law does not require state authorities to notify people when their voting rights are restored.
Plaintiffs allege that N.C.G.S. § 13-1 violates rights guaranteed by five provisions of the North Carolina Constitution:
- the Free Elections Clause by effectively conditioning the right to vote on a person’s ability to pay by requiring the payment of court costs, fees, and restitution as a condition of probation;
- the Ban on Property Qualifications by conditioning the right to vote on whether people have a type of property—money;
- the Freedom of Assembly Clause by denying citizens of the most direct way to express their support for a candidate or their views on matters of public importance and prohibits protected expression and association;
- the Freedom of Speech Clause by denying citizens of the most direct way to express their support for a candidate or their views on matters of public importance and prohibits protected expression and association; and
- the Equal Protection Clause by: (a) depriving all persons with felony convictions subject to probation, parole, or post-release supervision who are not incarcerated, of the right to vote; (b) depriving Black people of substantially equal voting power; and (c) creating an impermissible class-based classification by conditioning the restoration of the right to vote on the ability to make financial payments.
Plaintiffs seek: (1) a declaration that N.C.G.S § 13-1 is unconstitutional and invalid; (2) an injunction enjoining Defendants from preventing North Carolina citizens from exercising their right to vote; (3) an injunction enjoining Defendants from conditioning the restoration of the right to vote on payment of any financial obligation; (4) an order requiring Defendants to notify all people with past felony convictions who have already been released from incarceration or are released from incarceration in the future that their right to vote was restored upon release from incarceration or upon not being placed under community supervision and that they may lawfully register to vote and vote in North Carolina; and (5) an order requiring Defendants to engage in and take steps to ensure that affected citizens are informed of their restored rights and are able to register to vote and vote in North Carolina.
The Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgement was granted in part and denied in part. The court found in favor of Plaintiffs on their claims that N.C.G.S § 13-1 violates the Equal Protection Clause, only with respect to their impermissible wealth classification claim, and the Ban on Property Qualifications. The court granted Defendants summary judgment on the Right to Free Assembly and the Right to Free Speech challenges. The court denied summary judgment to both parties on the Free Elections Clause challenge as well as the remaining two Equal Protection Clause challenges.
The court found that a genuine issue of material fact precluded the court from granting summary judgment on the first and second bases for the alleged Equal Protection Clause violations. However, as for the third basis, the court found that that N.C.G.S § 13-1 creates an impermissible wealth classification that punishes people with felony convictions who are genuinely unable to comply with the financial terms of their judgment more harshly than those who are able to comply. In reaching its conclusion, the court explained that while the U.S. Supreme Court has held that wealth is not a “suspect classification” requiring heightened scrutiny, it has also held that when used to restrict the right to vote, a wealth classification is subject to heightened scrutiny because the right to vote is a fundamental right. The court thus applied heightened scrutiny and found that requiring an “unconditional discharge,” as N.C.G.S § 13-1 does, violates the N.C. Equal Protection Clause because it creates an impermissible wealth-based classification. The court elaborated that because of the discretion built into the criminal laws, a person could remain disenfranchised for up to eight years because of their inability to pay. The court therefore granted summary judgement in favor of the Plaintiffs on this claim, and because it found that Plaintiffs prevailed on this issue as a matter of law, the court also granted Plaintiffs a preliminary injunction.
The court also found that N.C.G.S § 13-1 violates the Ban on Property Qualifications because requiring an “unconditional discharge” makes the ability to vote dependent on whether a person possesses, at minimum, a monetary amount equal to any fees, fines, and debts assessed as a result of that person’s felony conviction. The court thus granted summary judgement in favor of Plaintiffs on this claim. Because the court found that Plaintiffs prevailed on this issue as a matter of law, it also granted Plaintiffs a preliminary injunction on this claim.
The preliminary injunction enjoins Defendants from preventing a person convicted of a felony from registering to vote and exercising their right to vote if (1) that person’s only remaining barrier to obtaining an “unconditional discharge” is a monetary payment or (2) that person has been discharged from probation, but owed a monetary amount upon the termination of their probation or if any monetary amount owed upon discharge from probations was reduced to a civil lien. The court limited injunctive relief to those currently precluded from exercising their right to vote solely as a result of them being subject to an assessment of fees, fines, or other debts arising from a felony conviction.
You can access relevant case documents here.