RALEIGH, N.C. — Five convicted felons accused of illegally voting in 2016 should have the charges against them dropped because the North Carolina law is racist, lawyers said in court filings Friday.
Lawyers for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham filed requests for judges to dismiss charges against five Alamance County residents accused of voting before they regained their full citizenship rights.
North Carolina requires convicted felons to complete any probation or parole before they have the right to vote again. A state elections board audit of the 2016 elections found 441 felons voted before having that right restored, and more than two-thirds of them were black.
Attorneys contend the 1901 law was intended to suppress black voting, and violating it is a felony, while a person who intimidates voters or breaks up an election "by force or violence" is only charged with a misdemeanor.
"We are asking the court to declare the law unconstitutional based on its racially discriminatory application," said John Carella, an attorney representing one of the five voters, Whitney Cherrelle Brown. At the time of the November 2016 elections, Brown, 31, was still on probation for a conviction the previous January for obtaining property by false pretenses, a felony.
The cases were among 12 that local prosecutors filed in an effort to punish improper voting, Carella said. State elections board records show similar violations were uncovered in all of North Carolina's 100 counties.
The state elections board opened 555 felon voting investigations in 2017 after getting additional referrals from county authorities. More than half remain under investigation, while 149 cases were referred to prosecutors, spokesman Pat Gannon said Friday. Of those, two people were convicted and 17 others indicted, while prosecutors declined to charge 69 people, Gannon said.
Alamance District Attorney Pat Nadolski did not return a phone message seeking comment on why he decided to prosecute the cases.
Jon Guze, a legal analyst at the conservative John Locke Foundation, said it's not clear from the statistics cited that African-Americans experience an outsized impact from the law because they also make up a majority of convicted felons.
"Also pertinent, I would think, is the fact that North Carolina's law in this area, which is similar to the law in many other states, seems reasonable on its face," Guze said in an email.
But Guze said he agreed with Carella that punishing felons who vote illegally with a new felony seems excessive and that the law should be changed to require that prosecutors prove intent to commit fraud.
Separately, legislative Republicans unveiled a proposed amendment to the state Constitution on Wednesday that would ask voters to decide whether a photo ID requirement should be required before voting.
The GOP-controlled General Assembly included a photo ID requirement in a broader 2013 election law after suggesting, without evidence, that voter fraud was taking place in North Carolina. A federal appeals court determined later that legislators acted intending to discriminate against minority voters when passing the law that reduced early voting from 17 days to 10, eliminated same-day registration and quit counting votes cast in the wrong precinct in addition to the voter ID requirements.
A state elections board audit last year found 508 of the 4.8 million ballots cast in 2016 involved ineligible voters. The report didn't include any evidence of coordinated fraud, and many of the voters claimed to be confused about their eligibility.
GOP activists complained about improper voting after the close governor's race in 2016 ended with Democrat Roy Cooper beating Republican Pat McCrory's re-election bid by just over 10,000 votes. Hundreds of votes were challenged in postelection protests in 37 counties, but most of the challenges were dismissed or derailed by a lack of evidence.
Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio
This story has been corrected to show that Carella represents one of the five voters, not all five.