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The History of Felony Disenfranchisement in NC

Limiting access to the ballot for any group of people is the antithesis of an inclusive democracy. Unlock Our Vote NC is our fight to ensure equal access to the ballot by advocating that everyone, despite their criminal record history, should be able to participate in our democracy and use their votes to make their voices heard. We’re using litigation, community organizing, and storytelling campaigns in our work to overturn an unconstitutional disenfranchisement law that disproportionately impacts people of color, especially Black people.

Our expert reports found that although Black people constitute 21% of the voting age population in North Carolina, they represent 42% of the people disenfranchised while on probation, parole, or post-release supervision. In 44 counties, today, the disenfranchisement rate for Black people is more than three times the rate of the white population.

Felony disenfranchisement is nothing new. It dates back more than 100 years and has been used primarily as a way to dilute the voting power of Black and Brown communities. The Unlock Our Vote Campaign centers on ensuring that thousands of people in our state do not have their voices unconstitutionally denied and that this history of voter suppression is not allowed to continue. Learn more in our interactive timeline below.

1866
1866

1866

History of Racist Intent

Expert witness historian Dr. Vernon Burton submitted evidence that in the 1860s and before, North Carolina disenfranchised only persons convicted of “infamous” crimes, not all felonies. However, immediately after the Civil War, former rebels engaged in a widespread campaign of convicting African Americans of “infamous” crimes and whipping them as the punishment, with the express goal of preventing African Americans from being able to vote.

In the fall of 1866, reports began to come in from military headquarters in Charleston and Raleigh that ‘in all country towns the whipping of negroes is being carried on extensively,’ with ‘the real motive’ being ‘to guard against their voting in the future, there being a law in North Carolina depriving those publicly whipped of the right to vote.’

Image Source: Library of Congress

 

1867
1867

1867

Harper’s Weekly – January 12, 1867

“[E]very day during about a month, while the State court was recently sitting at Raleigh, there was a crowd of nearly five hundred people outside the court-house witnessing the public whipping of colored men as fast as they were convicted and sentenced to be whipped by the Court.” “This sentence of whipping operates in North Carolina as a civil disqualification, so that none of these victims, according to the local law, could ever vote, even if the suffrage were extended to colored man. They are disqualified in advance.”

Image Source: Dickinson.edu

1867-2

“In August 1867…‘rebel sympathizers’ insisted that ‘a man who had been whipped at the whipping post was disfranchised’ and, even though these claims were ‘overruled by the Registrars,’ it ‘deterred’ many African Americans from registering to vote.”

Source: Dickinson.edu

1868
1868

1868

Significantly, the 1868 Constitution had no provisions for the disenfranchisement of people formerly convicted of felonies.

Almost as soon as the 1868 Constitution was ratified, Democrats began to agitate against the universal manhood suffrage established by Article VI.

Image Source: Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

1874
1874-1875

1874-1875

“In 1874, after the Democratic Conservatives captured seven out of eight of the state’s Congressmen, six of the eight justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court, and two-thirds of the members of both Houses of the General Assembly, Democrats began to overthrow the ‘unjust and oppressive’ 1868 Constitution.”

Image Sources: Associated Press and Zinned Project

 

1876
1876-1877

1876-1877

Expert witness historian Dr. Vernon Burton submitted evidence into the record that when NC first adopted felony disenfranchisement into the NC constitution in 1876, with implementing legislation in 1877, it was done so with the express purpose of neutering the gains of Radical Reconstruction (1865-1877), particularly the advances of the 15th amendment which gave Black men the right to vote.

Conservative-Democrats ratified North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement constitutional amendment which expanded the crimes for which people could be disenfranchised to include ALL felonies, not just infamous crimes.

 

 

1877
1877

1877

A Democrat named John Henderson chaired the House committee that prepared the 1877 implementing legislation which NCGS 13-1 is modeled after. Henderson was an avid Jim Crow supporter who once presided over the lynching of three African Americans.

Image Source: Archive.org

1877-2

There were three particularly noteworthy aspects of the 1877 statutory scheme that Henderson ushered into law and that remain in effect today.

  • First, the General Assembly chose the broadest possible scope of people to disenfranchise—those convicted of ALL felonies, not any subset of the most serious or election-specific crimes.
  • Second, the General Assembly made it a crime for people with felony convictions to vote before their rights were restored, punishable by up to two years in prison.  That is exactly the punishment that exists today for people with felonies convictions who vote unlawfully. I’m sure you all are aware of the “Alamance 12”, people who were prosecuted in Alamance county, NC, in 2016, for mistakenly voting while on felony probation.
  • Third, the 1877 statutory scheme required people to wait four years from the date of conviction before they could apply to have their rights restored.  Today’s law also disenfranchises people for extended periods of time, despite the fact that they live in our communities, expert witness Dr. Frank Baumgartner found that the average term of probation is over 30 months.
1898
Men gather outside the charred remains of The Daily Record after the 1898 massacre.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1898-1899

“In the election of 1898, the Democrats recaptured the General Assembly and when the new Democratic-controlled legislature convened in January 1899 it made as one of its first orders of business the disfranchisement of black voters. In February 1899, the General Assembly passed an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that imposed literacy tests and poll taxes…. Democrats in North Carolina made no attempt to disguise the purpose of the suffrage amendment – its intent was ‘to secure white supremacy.’”

Source: The Atlantic

 

1940
1940

1940

“In 1940, just 5 percent of eligible African Americans were registered to vote, but by 1956, 20 percent were registered, and by 1960 a third.”

Story: PRI.org

Source: Kheel Center/Flickr

1950

1950-1960

“Felony disfranchisement mainly served two purposes in North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s — as threat for would-be offenders, and as a justification for the state’s resistance to voting rights legislation.”

 

Source: Expert Report of Orville Vernon Burton in Community Success Initiative v. Moore, No. 19-cv-15941 (N.C. Superior Court) May 8, 2020

1965
1965-1974

1965-1974

“With passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the first African American, a Democrat, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1968, the first Black elected to the state legislature in the twentieth century. In 1971, the suffrage requirements of the North Carolina Constitution were amended. The revisited Article VI states that: ‘No person adjudged guilty of a felony against this State or the United States, or adjudged guilty of a felony in another state that also would be a felony if it had been committed in this State, shall be permitted to vote unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.”

Image Source: Library of Congress

 

1973

1973

In March 1973, the General Assembly amended NCGS 13-1 to provide for automatic rights restoration, but only after a person with a felony conviction receives an “unconditional discharge” from probation, parole, or post-release supervision. The only three African American members of the General Assembly wanted to restore voting rights as soon as a person was released from prison, but other members of the General Assembly blocked that effort.

1973-2

“The following August, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that the new law ‘must be applied retroactively.’”

2018

2018

In 2018, a dozen people in Alamance County, NC were arrested for unknowingly illegally voting with a felony while on probation or parole.

Source: NY Times 

2019

2019

In Hoke County, NC, Lanisha Bratcher, was arrested in 2019 for unknowingly voting illegally while on probation. 3 other people with felonies in her county were indicted for illegally voting in 2016 as well.

Source: The Guardian

2021

2021

In September 2020, a three-judge panel ruled that thousands of people on community supervision whose inability to pay fines and fees extended their probation and parole can now register to vote. 

Learn more about our continued fight to Unlock Our Vote

 

 

 

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