The 2–1 ruling, in a state Superior Court in Raleigh, immediately reinstates voting rights to North Carolina residents convicted of felonies but whose current punishments don’t include prison time.
The decision followed a lawsuit filed by several civil rights groups and ex-offenders against legislative leaders and state officials in November 2019 on behalf of six individuals and nonprofit organizations.
They argued the current 1973 law is unconstitutional by denying the right to vote to people who have completed their active sentences or received no such sentence, such as people on probation. They also said the rules disproportionately affect black residents.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections issued a statement saying that the decision means it “must immediately begin to permit such individuals to register to vote.”
“State Board staff will work as quickly as possible to update communication materials and all forms and documents to comply with the order. Staff are also working with the Department of Public Safety to update data the State Board receives regarding individuals who are ineligible to register to vote due to a felony conviction,” the board added.
“Everyone on felony probation, parole, or post-supervision release can now register and vote, starting today,” the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Stanton Jones, said following the ruling, The News & Observer reported.
Monday’s ruling “delivers on a promise of justice by the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. a half century ago, that all people living in communities across the state deserve to have their voices heard in elections,” he added, according to The New York Times.
One lawyer said the ruling marks the largest expansion of voting rights in the state since the 1960s.
“When I heard the ruling, I wanted to run in the street and tell everybody that now you have a voice,” said Diana Powell with Justice Served NC, a Raleigh-based community group that sued. “I am so excited for this historic day.”
Sam Hayes, an attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore, who is a defendant along with Senate leader Phil Berger and the State Board of Elections, said he plans to file an appeal to block the panel’s preliminary injunction.
Responding to the decision, he called it an “absurd ruling that flies in the face of our Constitution and further casts doubt on election integrity in North Carolina.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 20 states automatically restore voting rights for convicted felons when they are released from prison, while about 15 restore those rights upon completion of their sentence, including probation and parole.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.