Lawsuit challenges North Carolina’s strict liability law on felons voting

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A North Carolina law making it a serious crime for convicted felons to vote before their right is restored, even when it’s an unintentional mistake, is racially discriminatory and needs to be blocked for the November election, a federal lawsuit says.

Two civil rights advocacy groups suing the State Board of Elections and the attorney general contend the 1931 law also is unconstitutionally vague and requires a broad review of state law to determine when an ex-offender is allowed to vote again.

Although violations of the law are almost always unintentional, district attorneys in some counties are still prosecuting these residents, the groups' attorneys say. Evidence of someone deliberately trying to break the law isn’t a prerequisite for a conviction, according to the lawsuit filed late Thursday in central North Carolina federal court.

“These high-profile criminal cases, as well as the vague wording of the (law), have chilled countless eligible voters with criminal convictions from exercising their rights to cast a ballot,” the lawsuit reads.

The A. Philip Randolph Institute and Action NC want the law struck down as unconstitutional and blocked from enforcement for the 2020 election.

The law originates from the 19th century as a way to specifically deter Black residents from voting, according to the lawsuit. Convictions of the low-grade felony are punishable by up to two years in prison.

The lawsuit was filed three weeks after state judges ruled the voting rights of felons should be restored if outstanding restitution, fees or other court-imposed monetary obligations are the only portions of their sentence remaining. The ruling, if upheld, could pave the way for thousands of felons to have their voting rights restored, beginning with the fall election.

In North Carolina, felons have been able to register to vote again once they complete all aspects of their sentence, which can range from prison time to financial penalties.