More than 50,000 people with felony convictions in North Carolina could regain their right to vote under a state court ruling handed down on Monday.

Superior court judges, in a 2-1 decision, found racial bias in a North Carolina law that denied voting rights to people who, though freed from prison, remained on probation, parole or post-release supervision from a felony conviction.

In addition to the estimated 56,000 North Carolina residents denied the vote based on state crimes, an additional 5,000 residents were unconstitutionally blocked from the ballot because of federal convictions.

“North Carolina’s elections do not faithfully ascertain the will of the people when such an enormous number of people living in communities across the State…are prohibited from voting,” the judges wrote in their decision.

In some state and local races, the judges said, the vote margin “is regularly less than the number of people disenfranchised in the relevant geographic area.”

The ruling comes as voting rights advocates in a number of states have pushed to have rights restored to people released from prisons on felony convictions, regardless of their probationary status.

The North Carolina law was challenged by Community Success Initiative, a Raleigh-based civil rights organization. In a suit seeking to have the law repealed, lawyers for the organization argued that racial bias in the criminal justice system meant Black residents were disproportionately disenfranchised.

Republican legislators, who defended the law, did not immediately indicate whether they planned to appeal the judges’ ruling.

A law born of racism

The history of using criminal convictions to deny the right to vote dates back to the late 1800s, witnesses for the plaintiffs told the three-judge panel assigned to decide the case.

In the years following the Civil War, white former Confederates launched “an extensive campaign” throughout the South of “convicting African American men of petty crimes en masse,” Vernon Burton, a history professor at Clemson University had testified.

A lawyer for the state retorted, arguing that state lawmakers, influenced by the civil rights movement, made significant changes to the law in the 1970s to address its racist history.

The court rejected that argument, ruling that some of the changes made to the law in the 1970s, including a decision to keep people on parole and probation from voting, were also “independently motivated by racism.”

Furthermore, the judges said, the court found “no evidence” that the 1880s law ever would have been written but for racist motivations.

“The legislature cannot purge through the mere passage of time an impermissibly racially discriminatory intent,” the judges wrote in their decision.

Uneven impact

In voting to strike down the law, the judges sided with the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses who had pointed to the law’s disproportionate impact on North Carolina’s Black communities.

The ruling noted that in individual counties, the overall rate of disenfranchisement ranges from 0.25% to roughly 1.4% of the voting-age population. But the impact on Black communities was far greater.

“In total, 1.24% of the entire African American voting-age population in North Carolina are denied the franchise due to felony probation, parole, or post- release supervision, whereas only 0.45% of the White voting-age population are denied the franchise,” the ruling stated.

While black residents account for 21% of North Carolina’s voting-age population, the court found, more than 42% of those denied the franchise due to felony probation, parole or post- release supervision are Black.

In 44 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the percentage of the Black voting-age residents who are denied the vote because of probation, parole, or post-release supervision is more than three times greater than the comparable percentage of the white population, the ruling stated.

In 19 counties, more than 2% of Black, voting-age residents are blocked from voting. In four other counties, the percentage tops 3%. And in one county, the number is more than 5%.

“In comparison, the highest rate of White disenfranchisement in any county in North Carolina is 1.25%,” the ruling states.

“In sum, North Carolina’s denial of the franchise to persons on felony probation, parole, or post-release supervision has an extreme disparate impact on…African American people,” the court’s majority wrote.

The decision was signed by Judge Keith Gregory, a Wake County Democrat, and Judge Lisa Bell of Mecklenburg County, who is unaffiliated.

Judge John Dunlow, a Republican from Granville County, dissented.

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