(The Center Square) – Thousands of convicted felons in North Carolina can vote in the November election after a court found the state's voting rights law unconstitutional.
A three-judge Wake County Superior Court panel said the law that allows people on parole or probation to vote only after they pay all the fees and fines associated with their sentence violates the state constitution's Equal Protection Clause and Ban on Property Qualifications.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2019 on behalf of four North Carolinians and a coalition of civil rights and criminal reform groups against House Speaker Tim Moore, R- Cleveland; Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham; and state board of election officials.
"This ruling is a major victory for the thousands of North Carolinians who have been denied access to the ballot due to an inability to pay financial obligations," said Dennis Gaddy, executive director of Community Success Initiative, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Friday's ruling will restore voting rights temporarily for nearly 60,000 people while litigation continues. According to state law, North Carolinians who have been convicted of a crime cannot vote until they have met all of the conditions of their sentence.
Wilmington resident Timothy Locklear served 10 months in prison after being convicted of drug charges. Upon completing his sentence, Locklear was placed on parole, which ended July 7.
Despite working two jobs at the New Hanover County landfill, Locklear cannot afford to pay the more than $2,500 in court costs, restitution and other fees that were part of his sentence.
The Wake County panel said the law bases a person's right to vote on their financial status. Therefore, the freedom to vote is not guaranteed to all residents.
"The loss to plaintiffs' fundamental rights guaranteed by the North Carolina Constitution will undoubtedly be irreparable with voting set to commence in a matter of weeks for the upcoming 2020 general election," the panel said.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley said the court's decision could interrupt the state's November election process.
"It is outrageous for these judges to change the rules for an election when absentee ballots have already started going out and voting has begun," he said. "This is yet another example of why we need to elect conservative judges who will apply the law rather than re-write the laws they don't like."
The deadline to request an absentee ballot for the November election is Oct. 27.