RALEIGH — State legislative leaders want the N.C. Court of Appeals to block a ruling that could add 56,000 felons to the state’s voting rolls. A trial court issued the ruling Monday. It would open up voting to felons on parole, probation, or other post-release supervision.
“This is an unrivaled attempt by judges to legislate from the bench,” said Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, in a news release. “Piece-by-piece the courts are chipping away at the legislature’s constitutional duty to set election policy in this state and seizing that authority for themselves.”
Lawmakers are seeking an emergency stay of the trial court’s order pending appeal.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of Superior Court judges struck down a 1973 state law. The law spells out the process for felons to regain voting rights once they complete their sentences.
“The decision from a divided three-judge panel came just as absentee voting started, even though judges had more than six months to issue the written order,” according to Daniel’s news release.
“This isn’t the first time the court has disrupted election procedure when up against a deadline,” the release added. “In late August 2021, when the same three-judge panel issued its verbal order entitling about 55,000 felons to register to vote, it did so just days before the State Board of Elections needed to finalize materials for the 2021 municipal elections.”
“This week’s ruling again puts a time crunch on an appeal before the 2022 elections.”
The N.C. Constitution explains that felons cannot vote unless authorized by a law approved by the General Assembly. The current law dates back nearly 50 years, when Democrats controlled both legislative chambers.
“This week, a three-judge panel struck down that law and described it as racist,” according to Daniel’s release. “That ruling means North Carolina does not have a law allowing felons to regain their right to vote.”
“However, instead of just striking down the law, two of the three judges wrote a new law allowing all felons not currently serving an active sentence to register to vote,” the news release added. “Simply put, this ruling substitutes the preferred policy of two county judges for state law.”
“The General Assembly has not voted on a new process for felons to regain their right to vote, nor has Gov. Cooper signed anything into law. The only people who have approved this policy change are two trial court judges that represent a small fraction of our residents.”
The same three-judge panel has been addressing this case since the 2020 election cycle. That year, the judges ruled that felons should be permitted to vote if they had completed all elements of their sentences except payment of penalties.
In August 2021 the judges split 2-1 in deciding to extend the vote to all post-release felons. Two Democrats approved the change. A Republican dissented.
The split court announced the decision but issued no written order or opinion. Judges explained that they wanted to issue a ruling in time for elections officials to allow affected felons to participate in that year’s fall elections.
Attorney General Josh Stein declined to appeal the ruling, so lawmakers “fired” him from the case. With new private attorneys, legislators convinced the N.C. Court of Appeals to block the trial court ruling before it could affect last year’s municipal elections.
The case, titled Community Success Initiative v. Moore, already has reached the Appeals Court. In a March 9 filing, legislative defendants asked appellate judges to delay further proceedings while waiting for the trial court’s final decision. The motion predicted the trial court ruling would “likely moot or at least alter” the issues to be addressed in the appeal.