Federal Court Declares North Carolina Racist Voting Law Unconstitutional 

Voting Rights

GREENSBORO (April 23, 2024) — A federal court has ruled that District Attorneys in North Carolina can no longer enforce a racist law allowing for the felony prosecution of individuals with prior felony convictions if they unknowingly or mistakenly cast a ballot without first regaining their eligibility to vote.

U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Biggs ruled in a summary judgement ruling that the state’s only strict liability voter prosecution law violated both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and enjoined the law from being enforced in any prosecutions.

Read the full order here.

Attorneys from Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, representing the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute and Action NC, challenged a law originally enacted in 1877 with the explicit intent to disenfranchise Black voters and which has remained substantially unchanged ever since. The law made it a felony for a North Carolinian to vote while on parole, probation, or post-release supervision for a felony conviction, even if they mistakenly believed or were told in error by election workers or their parole officers that they were eligible to vote. Voters who were found to have violated the law could face up to two years in prison.

For more than 145 years, the voices of North Carolinians with felony convictions, many Black North Carolinians, were chilled by the selective and arbitrary enforcement of the law. Judge Biggs’ found it “extraordinary and telling” that the state did not dispute the discriminatory origins of the law or its current discriminatory impact on Black voters. 

Judge Biggs also found that vagueness around the strict-liability nature of the law, enabled North Carolina district attorneys to “pursue their personal predilections” in deciding whether to enforce the law — which is why it could not stand.

“A racially discriminatory law is now a relic of the past. It’s sad that in today’s society we still have laws on the books that specifically discriminate against Black voters, even if some people may choose to ignore this reality,” said Melvin Montford, Executive Director of the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute. “The state of North Carolina can no longer enforce this discriminatory law and it’s no longer a tool for district attorneys and the State Board of Election to arbitrarily use.”

“We are ecstatic that the court found in our favor and struck down this racially discriminatory law that has been arbitrarily enforced over time,” said Pat McCoy, the Executive Director of Action NC. “We will now be able to help more people become civically engaged without fear of prosecution for innocent mistakes. Democracy truly won today!”

“Southern Coalition for Social Justice is proud that the work in this case forced the General Assembly to rewrite a racist and discriminatory law by stripping the law of its strict-liability nature, but the Legislature’s failure to remedy the harms that the old law would still have on voters by not making it retroactive was also very telling,” said Mitchell D. Brown, Senior Counsel for Voting Rights at Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Judge Biggs’ decision will help ensure that voters who mistakenly think they are eligible to cast a ballot will not be criminalized for simply trying to re-engage in the political process and perform their civic duty. It also makes our democracy better and ensures that North Carolina is not able to unjustly criminalize innocent individuals with felony convictions who are valued members of our society, specifically Black voters who were the target of this law.”

“The right to vote is a cornerstone of democracy,” added Jon Youngwood, Co-Chair of Simpson Thacher’s Litigation Department. “We are the thrilled that the Court has seen fit to overturn North Carolina’s 145-year-old unconstitutional strict liability law. The provision had wrongfully threatened citizens with wholly unwarranted felony charges since shortly after the Civil War. In doing so it chilled the right of North Carolina citizens to vote. We commenced this lawsuit shortly before the 2020 election. We are pleased that the law has now been struck down.”