Politics & Government

Thousands on probation can’t vote in NC. Here’s how many were convicted for trying.

Whitney Brown, left, and Keith Sellars at Burlington City Park in Burlington, N.C., July 25, 2018. Sellars and Brown are among 12 people who voted in the 2016 election while still on felony probation or parole who are now being prosecuted in Alamance County. “I didn’t know,” Sellars said. “I thought I was practicing my right.”
Whitney Brown, left, and Keith Sellars at Burlington City Park in Burlington, N.C., July 25, 2018. Sellars and Brown are among 12 people who voted in the 2016 election while still on felony probation or parole who are now being prosecuted in Alamance County. “I didn’t know,” Sellars said. “I thought I was practicing my right.” NYT

North Carolina has referred more than 460 allegations of felons voting illegally to prosecutors since 2015, but so far fewer than 30 people have been convicted.

Prosecutors chose not to bring charges in nearly 200 cases. Hundreds more remain under review.

Convicted felons in North Carolina who have completed their prison sentence but not probation or post-release supervision are prohibited from voting. But a 2017 audit by the state board of elections — commissioned after allegations of fraud made during and after the contentious 2016 elections for president and governor — discovered hundreds of cases.

The new data, which the state board provided to The News & Observer, shows far fewer cases in the years without an audit. The board, too, has taken several measures to alert voters to the law since many of those referred for prosecution said they were not aware of it. Probation officers were even called to testify as witnesses in trials. The audit said some voters did not know they “had lost their voting rights upon conviction.”

Intent does not matter in the North Carolina law.

Among the changes made by the board and others since 2016:

• Voting rights information has been added to the Department of Public Safety’s “completing probation successfully” brochure;

• Defendants must initial a voting rights section on DPS’ “conditions of probation” form;

• Voters must sign a new authorization to vote form that includes a box to check saying you have not been convicted of a felony or, if you have, that you’ve completed your sentence along with any probation or parole.

• All polling places must post a certification poster that lists qualifications for voting, including U.S. citizenship, completion of felony sentence, correct address and not voting more than once.

The changes will make it more difficult for defendants to claim that they were unaware of the law.

“We want them to be told as they’re being moved through the criminal justice system: Until they’ve finished their sentence, they cannot vote,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the state board.

70,000 ineligible

There are 6.7 million registered voters in the state, according to current state board statistics. North Carolina is one of 18 states that prohibits voting until convicted felons have completed probation or post-release supervision, according to The Sentencing Project.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice said in a new report released this week that nearly 70,000 state residents were ineligible to cast a ballot in 2017 because of the probation provision.

“They’re living in the community, paying taxes. There’s a ‘taxation without representation’ argument that can be made,” said Kristen Powers, the group’s advocacy coordinator. “They’re being denied one of their most basic rights.”

The group is calling for the state to change its laws to allow all felons released from prison to have their voting rights restored.

“It’s clearer, it’s simpler and it causes less confusion,” Powers said.

Even adding fewer than 70,000 more eligible voters could make a difference in a state where several recent elections have been decided by slim margins.

Democrat Roy Cooper won his gubernatorial race by fewer than 20,000 votes against incumbent Republican Pat McCrory in 2016. Democrat Barack Obama won the state by fewer than 14,000 votes in the 2008 presidential election.

Black residents make up a disproportionate share of those affected by the law, according to the report, making up 39.2% of those disenfranchised but just 21.5% of the state’s population. White residents make up 69% of North Carolina’s population, but 56.3% of those impacted by the voting law.

Alamance County brought felony charges against 12 voters after the 2017 audit — 10 people were convicted and two cases are pending. At least five had their charges reduced to misdemeanors, according to previous News & Observer reporting. Those five were represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which argued that the law has “toxic racist origins.”

In 1901, North Carolina passed a law preventing people with criminal convictions from voting. The coalition says it was aimed at preventing voting by African Americans.

By the numbers

The state data shows:

Four people were convicted in 2015 cases, two in 2016 and 23 in 2017. The year refers to the year the case was opened by the state board — not the election year or the year of conviction.

Of the 467 substantiated cases, the state board referred 464 to prosecutors. Nearly half — 231 — remain under review.

In 188 cases, prosecutors declined to prosecute. Fourteen cases are under prosecution. The board lists five cases as “other,” which includes one acquittal and several others in which charges were not brought because of death.

The convictions occurred in Alamance County (10), Gaston (seven), Moore (seven), Cumberland (two), Mecklenburg (one), Union (one) and Pasquotank (one).

“That’s the law,” Pat Nadolski, the Republican then-district attorney in Alamance County, told The New York Times in 2017. “You can’t do it. If we have clear cases, we’re going to prosecute.”

Change the law?

Democrats in the U.S. House included a provision about restoring voting rights for felons in one of its top bills. H.R. 1 passed on a party-line vote and the Republican-controlled Senate has not taken it up. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill, which includes a host of elections-related provisions including making Election Day a national holiday, the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and said it amounted to an “unprecedented federal takeover of elections.”

The bill would allow felons to vote unless “such individual is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility at the time of the election.”

Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican, “is open to state-level measures that increase access and simplicity of voting, but believes that punishments must be paid and people convicted of felonies should show rehabilitation before redemption is fully given,” spokesman Jack Minor said in a statement to The News & Observer.

There does not seem to be much momentum for changing North Carolina’s law.

Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, said “North Carolina’s law is actually a strong law,” citing some states that either do not let felons ever vote again or make it very difficult for them to regain the right to vote.

Seventeen states allow convicted felons to vote if they have completed their prison sentence, according to The Sentencing Project. Two states — Maine and Vermont — allows felons to vote even while in prison, while Iowa and Kentucky don’t allow felons to regain the right to vote without specific government intervention, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

“States are allowed to take away rights from people when they’ve been convicted of crimes. You’ve shown yourself as someone that does not respect the rights of other people. It is well within states’ authority and I think proper authority. Parole is just a regular part of the sentence,” said Andy Jackson, an elections policy fellow with the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute. “I don’t see much of an appetite for changing it either way.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.