SCSJ challenges NC law that punishes returning citizens with felonies for voting while ineligible

On June 8, 2018, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed motions to dismiss on behalf of five clients in Alamance County who were charged with voting while being ineligible due to a criminal conviction.   

In our the motions, SCSJ asks the court to recognize the unconstitutionality of the criminal statute that allows the state to seek a felony conviction against a person who casts a vote in a primary or general election before that person has completed probation and returned to full citizenship. As stated in the motion, the statute (N.C.G.S. § 163-275(5)) “violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, § 19 of the North Carolina Constitution, in that the crime was created on the basis of racial animus with the specific purpose to suppress the votes of African Americans in North Carolina, and it continues to have a disparate impact on the basis of race.” (Motion to Dismiss on behalf of Whitney Brown, p.1).

The full motion can be read at  http://bit.ly/AlamanceMotiontoDismiss

 

On the origins of the crime

Under current North Carolina law, a person who engages in voter intimidation or breaks up an election “by force or violence” commits a mere misdemeanor. However, a person who casts a single vote before being returned to full citizenship commits a felony subject to up to two years of imprisonment. Our state criminal laws have maintained this backward distinction for over a century, because our statutes criminalizing voting have been re-codified virtually unchanged since they were enacted by an openly racist legislature that came to power through voter intimidation and promises to strip the vote from African Americans by all available means.

 Prior to 1900, North Carolina’s Constitution did not expressly exclude those previously convicted of felonies from the right of suffrage. The state also had no poll tax or literacy test. All of this changed with the Suffrage Amendment ratified in 1900 and the general election law passed the following year. These changes to state law, which included the enactment of the statute under which Ms. Brown has been charged came after an open campaign to disenfranchise an emergent African American electorate and install White Supremacy in North Carolina.

In its 1898 party handbook, the Democratic Party estimated with alarm that a third of this state’s 360,000 votes were cast by African Americans. The handbook declared that it was “the special mission of the Democratic Party to rescue the white people of the east from negro domination.” Among the evils the party claimed it needed to guard against was the threat of African Americans registering those who were ineligible due to criminal convictions. This was seen as a particular threat because African Americans “had not those qualities of easy identification which the white man possesses” and had a “roving disposition.”

There was widespread voter intimidation during the electoral campaign of 1898. Bands of armed men known as Red Shirts rode on horseback through African American communities, particularly in southeastern North Carolina, to intimidate voters. The strategy worked, and the Democrats captured complete control of the General Assembly. The new legislature changed the state constitution, restricted the right to vote, and defined several “infamous crimes” based on casting an illegal vote.

In 1900, the General Assembly ratified a Suffrage Amendment to the state constitution that add a restriction specifically prohibiting those convicted of certain crimes from voting unless they “restored to citizenship.” The same amendment instituted both the literacy test and poll tax. The literacy test contained an exemption for the descendants of any person who was eligible to vote on or prior to January 1, 1867 – exempting White citizens who could vote in the time of slavery.

After passage of the Suffrage Amendment, the General Assembly ratified an elections law that provided detailed regulations regarding the literacy test and other voter suppression devices. The 1901 law also defined several voting crimes, including the this one:

Sec. 71 If any person be challenged as being convicted of any crime which excludes him from the right of suffrage, he shall be required to answer any question in relation to such alleged conviction; but his answer to such questions shall not be used against him in any criminal prosecution, but if any person so convicted shall vote at the election, without having been restored to the right of citizenship, he shall be guilty of an infamous crime, and punished by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, or imprisoned at hard labor, not exceeding two years, or both.

The act also made it an “infamous crime” to knowingly register in the wrong location or to “illegally vote” in any election.  At the same time, the act made it a misdemeanor to break up an election “by force and violence” or to “injure, threaten, oppress or attempt to intimidate any qualified voter of this State.” This dichotomy, in which voter intimidation constitutes a misdemeanor while casting a vote improperly is a felony, persists in North Carolina law in 2018.

Since its enactment in 1901, the only tweak to the language of the crime at issue in this case came in 1931, when the General Assembly made the wording more concise and replaced the term “infamous crime” with “felony.” From 1931 to the present, not one syllable of the definition of the crime of voting while ineligible due to a prior criminal conviction has changed. Along with the other surviving felonies from the 1901 law, the crime of voting while ineligible due to a prior criminal conviction has become a Class I felony under North Carolina Structured Sentencing. A conviction can result in as much as two years’ imprisonment. N.C.G.S. § 15A-1340.17.

 

On the continued disparate impact

The racially disparate impact of the law criminalizing voting before restoration of full citizenship after a criminal conviction persists to this day. In 2016, African Americans were nearly 53% of the prison population in this state. In the same year, African Americans comprised an estimated 21.5% of the total population of North Carolina.  Thus, African Americans are more likely to be disfranchised as the result of felony convictions and thus more likely to unintentionally run afoul of § 163-275(5) (2016), which has no express requirement of knowledge or fraudulent intent.

The prosecution of Whitney Brown in Alamance County, as well as other returning citizens, follows the law’s long tradition of a racially disparate impact. On a statewide basis, people identified as “Black” in the voter registration records constituted 290 of the 411 persons listed in the State Board of Elections’ 2016 Audit Report as having allegedly voted in violated of § 163-275(5) – 68.08% of the total when those who did not designate their race are excluded. By contrast, people identified as “White” comprised only 30.75% of the total.

This stark disparity becomes even greater in Alamance County, where the State has indicted twelve individuals for the alleged act of voting in the 2016 general election in violation of N.C.G.S. § 163-275(5). Ms. Brown and eight others – 75% of those facing a possible felony conviction – are African American. The law imposing a potential felony conviction for the act of voting before returning to full citizenship after criminal conviction functions exactly as the 1901 General Assembly intended: as a tool to punish, suppress and discourage voting by African Americans.

The statute at issue, N.C.G.S. § 163-275(5) (2016), was enacted for the express purpose of disfranchising African American voters, and continues to have a disparate impact on African American voters both statewide and in Alamance County. The racially invidious application of this law renders it unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment and Article I, § 19 of the North Carolina constitution.