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Thousands of North Carolina felons can now register and vote

File photo of polling worker as she enters a polling place in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, April 24, 2019 as early voting began in the Republican primary election for the North Carolina 9th Congressional District.
Chuck Burton

Tens of thousands of people serving punishments for felony convictions in North Carolina but who aren’t behind bars can now register to vote and cast ballots this fall after an appeals court ruling.

Expanding the scope of those able to register and vote began Wednesday, the State Board of Elections said — the day after local elections were held in more than a dozen localities.

The change proceeds from litigation challenging a 1973 law that prevents someone convicted of a felony from having voting rights restored while they are still on probation, parole or post-release supervision.

More than 56,000 people in North Carolina were prevented from registering under the challenged law, according to evidence cited in a 2021 trial.

North Carolina has more than 7.3 million registered voters, and statewide elections in the presidential battleground state are often close affairs. So any influx of voters could make a difference this fall, when the ballot will feature statewide races for U.S. Senate and the state Supreme Court.

The voter registration expansion "means you've got a voice," Daryl Atkinson, the lead attorney for civil rights groups and ex-offenders who sued over the law in 2019, said while celebrating the change at an event behind the state Legislative Building in Raleigh. “Imagine if 56,000 had something to say. But they’re going to have something to say in November."

A panel of trial judges struck down the 1973 law in March, declaring it violates the state constitution largely because it discriminates against Black residents.

The state Supreme Court agreed in May to hear an appeal of that decision, and the case remains pending. The date for oral arguments has not been set.

But the justices didn’t touch a Court of Appeals ruling that prevented registration requests from the felons who weren’t in prison or jail from being fulfilled only through Tuesday. So these applicants — for now and unless the Supreme Court reverses the trial court ruling — will be able to vote, beginning with the November general election.

The Rev. William Barber of Goldsboro, a co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign, also spoke at Wednesday's event, attended by about 100 people. A coalition of groups is organizing an “Unlock Our Vote Freedom Summer Tour” that will include voter information and registration drives, as well as other outreach efforts to potential voters.

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