The Rev. William J. Barber II speaks at the Unlock Our Vote event last week. Photo by Jenny Warburg. 

For almost seven years since being released from prison in 2004, Dennis Gaddy was unable to vote. Because North Carolina law prohibited voting rights for people serving felony parole or probation, Gaddy was among 56,000 North Carolinians who could not participate in various local, state, and federal elections.

“I come from a very civic-minded family,” Gaddy tells the INDY. “So I was crushed when I couldn’t vote for the first African American president in 2008.”

But that changed on July 27, after the victory of several plaintiffs who argued in a lawsuit filed in Wake County Superior Court that it was unconstitutional for North Carolinians on felony parole or probation to be denied voting access until they were “unconditionally discharged.” The case was Community Success Initiative v. Moore.

The plaintiffs, backed by various social justice organizations including the North Carolina NAACP, Justice Served NC, and Community Success Initiative (CSI), said denial of voting rights to these North Carolinians violates the state constitution, and in many cases, the inability to pay court fees was the only thing preventing thousands of North Carolinians from voting, because paying those fees is often a requirement of being “unconditionally discharged.”

“In some instances, North Carolinians convicted of felonies are placed under community suspension sentences by the court without incarceration; while they are economically contributing to society, North Carolina law bars them from voting for the entirety of the probation period,” the complaint reads. “It is unfair, discriminatory, and wrong.”

Following the ruling, several plaintiffs, advocates, and social justice groups held an outdoor celebration in Raleigh’s Halifax Mall with public speakers, free food, live DJs, and multiple voter registration booths.

Many of the speakers noted the significance of the event’s location, as Halifax Mall is located near various government office buildings including one housing the North Carolina State Board of Elections, which was named as a defendant in CSI v. Moore.

“Every district attorney, every judge, every state legislator, all these people in these buildings surrounded by here, they gotta listen to us now,” Daryl Atkinson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the audience during the event.

Judge John M. Dunlow sided with the plaintiffs in part because the voter restriction law had a disparaging effect on African Americans, according to the ruling. While 21 percent of North Carolina’s voting-age population is African American, over 40 percent of those denied voting rights due to felony probation, parole, or post-release supervision are African American.

“We were able to prove at trial that this law was no mistake; it was intentionally put into place to undermine the political power of Black people in this state,” Atkinson said during the event. “And it’s having that same effect today. Forty-two percent of the people impacted by these laws? African Americans.”

Rev. William J. Barber II, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, said the victory was one of the largest voter expansions and civil rights victories in North Carolina since the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“This victory is about reading the constitution right, daring to pick it up and dust it off and test every law under the microscope of what is written on paper, not people’s opinions,” Barber said during the event. “Nowhere does it say that we should be forever locked out of the Democratic Party process, even after a person has paid their debt to society, because to do this would be a form of voter enslavement. Not just disenfranchisement.”

Activists said many of the organizations involved in the case and the Unlock Our Vote event at Halifax Mall plan to tour the state to reach the 56,000 North Carolinians who are now eligible to vote.

“What we’re about to do is awaken a sleeping giant,” Kerwin Pittman with Emancipate NC said during the event. “These 56,000 people—my people, justice-impacted, justice-involved individuals who for years these legislators did not want to see them vote—let their voices be heard for years.”

In an interview with the INDY, Atkinson, who was incarcerated for felony drug trafficking before later going to law school, said every race in the November election matters, especially local elections, which could have a more direct impact on the lives of North Carolinians.

“It feels better for my people, my folks, because now they’ll have a voice in this body politic,” Atkinson tells the INDY. “All these races are going to be important, everything from district attorneys to sheriffs and judges to who is senator and congressman.” 

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