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Court ruling restores voting rights to thousands of North Carolinians

<p>An Orange County voter fills out his ballot for the local election at Chapel of the Cross on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. On Sept. 4, 2020, the Wake County Superior Court ruled that the state must allow citizens who owe fines, fees or debts from a felony conviction to vote.</p>

An Orange County voter fills out his ballot for the local election at Chapel of the Cross on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. On Sept. 4, 2020, the Wake County Superior Court ruled that the state must allow citizens who owe fines, fees or debts from a felony conviction to vote.

This article and the accompanying image were originally published by The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and are republished here as part of the One Vote North Carolina student media collaboration. Copyright by The Daily Tar Heel. 

For formerly incarcerated people in North Carolina, the beginning of September brought news of re-enfranchisement just eight weeks before the 2020 presidential election. 

On Sept. 4, the Wake County Superior Court ruled that the state must allow citizens who owe fines, fees or debts from a felony conviction to vote. 

Dennis Gaddy, founder and executive director of Community Success Initiative, said up to 5,000 people in North Carolina were made newly eligible voters by way of this decision. CSI is a Raleigh-based non-profit and the lead plaintiff in the case. 

Now, Gaddy said, the task is to identify and register new voters.

“We’re still putting together a strategy,” Gaddy said. “That’s something that the Second Chance Alliance team is trying to figure out.”

The N.C. Second Chance Alliance is a statewide alliance of people with criminal records, service providers, congregations, community leaders and concerned citizens that address the barriers that criminal records pose to successful re-entry. 

Many organizations and individuals involved in the Second Chance Alliance acted as plaintiffs in the CSI v. Moore case, litigated by the Durham-based law and policy center Forward Justice. In May 2020, the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgement—a decision by the court not involving a trial.

The plaintiffs also commissioned Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to draft an expert report on North Carolina’s disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people.

Baumgartner found that post-conviction financial obligations average more than $2,000 per individual on probation, and more than $500 for those on post-release supervision.

He also investigated racial disparities, reporting that Black people are disenfranchised by such policies at a rate 2.76 times higher than white people. 

“I was not surprised by the findings in the report, but as I often tell people, we have to put a number on these things,” Baumgartner said. “My role was simply to calculate what that number was, and what I found was 2.7.”

Gaddy, in addition to his role at CSI, serves as the criminal justice chair for the North Carolina NAACP. The court’s decision, he said, was an “implicit win” for the Black community, given that Black people make up 22% of North Carolina’s population, but 55% of the incarcerated population.

Gaddy comes from a family engaged in the democratic process. His mother, he said, worked to register voters during his summers growing up, while his father served as precinct chair for his local voting site.

However, after spending over five years in prison, Gaddy was released on probation and unable to vote in the 2008 presidential election.

“I was unable to vote for the first African American president,” he said. “I kind of lived for that day, when that would happen. So, for me, (disenfranchisement) is a personal experience.”

Leaders in the formerly incarcerated community celebrated the decision along with Gaddy and CSI. Kristie Puckett Williams, manager of the statewide Campaign for Smart Justice at the ACLU of North Carolina, is a formerly incarcerated scholar and activist for disenfranchised communities.

“It felt really good to see a decision that meant our people would be able to be reconnected in a way they hadn't been connected in years,” she said. “Incarcerated people are people. Helping folks get connected to their humanity through civic engagement is what this lawsuit is about.”

As 5,000 new voters are identified and registered in North Carolina, the push for re-enfranchisement is not over. Around 51,000 people on probation or post-release supervision are disenfranchised–and the court’s ruling applied only to the 5,000 unable to vote because of financial obligations.

“We broke a little bit of the glass ceiling,” Gaddy said. “But the verdict was a perfect solution to what we were trying to do, which was expand the right to vote.”

For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote North Carolina, a collaborative of The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.

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