This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

For more than a century, North Carolinians with felony convictions could only register to vote upon completion of their parole, probation or post-supervision release.

That changed on Monday when a three-judge panel issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Community Success Initiative, an advocacy organization for incarcerated people.

Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit petitioning judges to strike down the state law that only reinstates the right to vote for these individuals upon completion of their community supervision outside prison.

The plaintiffs announced the judges’ oral decision Monday. An official written ruling has not yet been entered. During the trial last week, experts and state officials testified on the history of the state law.

A press release from the plaintiffs touted the decision as the state’s “largest expansion of voting rights in the state since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

By modifying a previous preliminary injunction that only granted the part of the request, judges in the Wake County Superior Court restored the voting rights of close to 56,000 disenfranchised individuals convicted of federal and state felonies, according to Dennis Gaddy, the executive director of the Community Success Initiative.

At a press conference, Gatty said the ruling could impact another 20,000 to 25,000 people who are released per year. It does not affect people who are currently incarcerated.

Plaintiffs highlight racial discrimination in state voting rights law

The law originated from a post-Civil War amendment to the state constitution in 1875, which first codified disenfranchisement for all felonies. The law was described by plaintiffs as “adopted for overtly racist reasons”.

“This whole conversation is based on race, not felonies,” Gaddy said the white power in the state created laws to disproportionately punish people of color and deprive them of their voices.

“Although African Americans constitute 21.51 percent of the voting-age population in North Carolina, they represent 42.43 percent of the people disenfranchised while on probation, parole, or post-release supervision,” the plaintiff’s brief stated.

Formerly convicted advocates stressed the necessity, positive impact of ruling

Gaddy is also a lead plaintiff in the case. “I spent five and a half years in prison; I spent seven years on probation starting in 2005. And I had a job, I paid taxes, did all those things,” he told Policy Watch. “And still in 2008, I was unable to vote for the first African American president because I was on probation.”

Corey Purdie, executive director of Wash Away Unemployment, said at the press conference that he sees the ruling as an opportunity to destigmatize the community of the formerly incarcerated and encourage them to vote. He said, “Those that have been incarcerated across the state… they’ve been out for years but have not initiated their opportunities, and some now have been allowed opportunities but because of the fear of being unable to speak from being in prison from a teenager up and being told ‘if you say anything, you’d be locked up in a hole.’”

Rev. Anthony Spearman, president of N.C. NAACP  said his organization will join other groups in organizing vote drives to “unlock the vote.”

“When returning citizens have an opportunity for redemption and employment and re-enfranchisement,  we all win,” Spearman said. “Returning citizens will work to make our communities safer.”

A group of organizations filed amicus curiae, or “friends of the courts” briefs supporting the plaintiffs’ claims.

Among the amici are several states that have restored voting rights for those disenfranchised because of felony convictions, including the District of Columbia, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Nevada.

The legislative defendants could still appeal the ruling to the state appellate courts. State House Speaker Tim Moore’s Office has not responded to requests for comment as of this writing.

[Disclosure: the North Carolina Justice Center, the parent organization of Policy Watch, filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs in the case.]

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