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Trial begins on challenge to NC felon voting restrictions

August 16, 2021 GMT

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A state trial began Monday in a lawsuit challenging when voting rights are restored for convicted felons in North Carolina.

Three Superior Court judges heard opening statements and the initial testimony in Wake County court.

Several civil rights groups and ex-offenders sued legislative leaders and state officials in 2019, challenging a 1970s-era law laying out restoration requirements. They allege the rules violate the state constitution, unduly hurt Black residents and discourage voting by those who have fulfilled their sentences. Tens of thousands of North Carolina residents could be affected.

State law says felons can register to vote again once they complete all aspects of their sentence, including probation and parole. The lawsuit seeks to have those post-incarceration restrictions struck down and to ensure felons not sentenced to active prison time retain their voting rights.

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In a 2-1 decision in September 2020, the same judges ruled that a portion of the law requiring felons to pay all monetary obligations before voting again was unenforceable because it made voting dependent on one’s financial means. That allowed more people to vote in last November’s election.

Monday’s trial, which is expected to last about a week, focuses on the remaining requirements.

Lawyers representing those who were sued said the law doesn’t violate constitutional rights because it treats all people convicted of felonies the same by withholding the right to vote.

The current North Carolina Constitution forbids a person convicted of a felony from voting “unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.” But the plaintiffs say the restrictions violate other portions of the constitution, like those addressing free speech and equal protections.

Monday’s witnesses included a Clemson University professor who testified that an 1875 felony disenfranchisement amendment to the constitution was designed to intentionally prevent Black residents from voting after the Civil War.

A lawyer for the legislative leaders acknowledge in a brief that for much of the state’s history felony disenfranchisement was used to exclude African Americans from voting. But there is no evidence the 1970s law was motivated by discriminatory intent — rather, it was designed to help Black residents by removing obstacles to voting, the attorneys wrote.

Twenty states automatically restore voting rights for convicted felons when they’re released from prison, while about 15 states restore those rights upon completion of their sentence, including probation and parole, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

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The story has been corrected to show that the decision about monetary obligations happened in September 2020, not August 2020.