Federal Judge Strikes Down North Carolina Law Criminalizing Felony Voting

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal judge in North Carolina yesterday struck down a 19th century state law that imposes criminal penalties on residents who vote while on parole, probation or post-release supervision for a felony conviction.

In yesterday’s decision, Obama-appointed Judge Loretta C. Biggs ruled in favor of the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and Action NC, which argued in a federal lawsuit that the challenged statute is unconstitutionally vague and intentionally discriminatory toward Black North Carolinians. 

“The Challenged Statute was enacted with discriminatory intent, has not been cleansed of its discriminatory taint, and continues to disproportionately impact Black voters,” Biggs concluded — rejecting the state’s argument that the law was absolved of its racist origins when North Carolina adopted a new state constitution in 1971. 

Towards the end of last year, the North Carolina Legislature slightly amended the law to stipulate that people with felony convictions can only be prosecuted if they cast a ballot knowing that their voting rights have not been restored. Under earlier versions of the law, individuals could be subject to criminal liability even if they mistakenly believed or were told that they were eligible to vote.

However, the plaintiffs maintained that since the recent amendment to the law was “not retroactive,” the state could “still enforce the old version of the Law against voters who voted in any election prior to that date.” 

Nevertheless, a magistrate judge in January recommended that the case be dismissed as moot as a result of the Legislature’s update to the law, but Biggs disagreed, holding in yesterday’s order that the law contravenes both the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses. 

In addition to finding that the law intentionally discriminates against Black North Carolinians — who are significantly more likely to be prosecuted under the law — Biggs found that “the evidence in the record demonstrates that the Challenged Statute ‘lacks sufficient standards’” to protect against inconsistent or discriminatory enforcement by district attorneys.

State officials have not yet indicated whether they plan to appeal Biggs’ ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  

Yesterday’s ruling does not have any bearing on North Carolina’s strict felony disenfranchisement law, which denies the right to vote for those with felony convictions who remain on probation, parole or a suspended sentence — often leaving individuals without voting rights for many years after release from incarceration. 

Although the felony disenfranchisement law was temporarily invalidated by a North Carolina trial court in 2022, the newly conservative state Supreme Court reversed the decision in April 2023. 

In response to yesterday’s ruling, an attorney for the plaintiffs, Mitchell D. Brown, said that “Judge Biggs’ decision will help ensure that voters who mistakenly think they are eligible to cast a ballot will not be criminalized for simply trying to re-engage in the political process and perform their civic duty.”

“It also makes our democracy better and ensures that North Carolina is not able to unjustly criminalize innocent individuals with felony convictions who are valued members of our society, specifically Black voters who were the target of this law,” Brown added. 

Read the order here.

Learn more about the case here.