Proposal would make ex-felons wait 5 years to vote

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comApril 22, 2013 

NC Sen. E. S. "Buck" Newton

  • Where, and when, felons are allowed to vote

    North Carolina is among 19 states that allow people convicted of felonies to have their voting and other citizenship rights restored upon completion of their prison sentences, probation or parole and the payment of any fines, according to ProCon.org, a non-profit website that researches controversial issues and presents them in a non-partisan format.

    Another 17 states restore voting rights to felons after they’ve completed their prison sentences or their parole.

    Twelve states either require waiting periods like the one proposed by Newton or permanently ban convicted felons from voting.

    Two states, Vermont and Maine, allows convicted felons to vote via absentee ballot while serving their prison terms.

— People convicted of felonies who have paid their debts to society in North Carolina would no longer automatically get back the right to vote under the Senate’s version of the voter ID bill.

The bill would require people convicted of felony crimes to wait five years upon the completion of their sentence, probation or parole before they could attempt to re-register to vote. First, though, they would have to get affidavits from two registered voters attesting to their “upstanding moral character” and get the unanimous approval of their local board of elections.

The bill’s primary sponsor, E.S. “Buck” Newton of Wilson, said he considers the measure a compromise.

“The long and short of it is the vast majority of people I have spoken to regarding election laws think convicted felons should not be able to vote at all,” said Newton, a Republican who represents Wilson, Nash and Johnston counties. “I think a person can make a mistake, get their lives together and show themselves to be upstanding citizens. A five-year time frame is a reasonable period to show that.”

Critics say the bill is racially biased and is among a series of legislative initiatives designed to suppress the black vote following the re-election of President Barack Obama last year. Of the more than 40,000 people in North Carolina’s prisons in 2011 – 93 percent of whom were men – 57 percent were black, even though African Americans make up only 22 percent of the state’s population.

“This is essentially voter suppression for African American males who have been most disproportionately impacted by and entangled in the criminal justice system,” said Dennis Gaddy, director of the Community Success Initiative, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of ex-offenders at the General Assembly. “Taking away the vote from the formerly incarcerated has never been designed as a punitive measure, but as a way to suppress the vote.”

N.C. Central University law professor Irv Joyner said the bill is an attempt to disenfranchise people with felony convictions and will have a dramatic impact on minority voting power. Joyner and Gaddy both think the bill in its entirety is similar to election laws passed in North Carolina at the turn of the past century that resulted in no black legislators being elected to the General Assembly until 1969.

“There is no rational basis or legitimate reason to deny citizens and taxpayers from this group the ability to exercise their constitutional right to vote in the absence of any evidence that their past voting pattern has undermined the voting rights of others or has been used in an illegal or improper manner,” Joyner said. “The only evidence which is available shows conclusively that those felons who have voted in past election have used the vote in a responsible and democratic manner. The only logical justification for this effort to prevent them from voting is to further impact and remove a large bloc of African-Americans from the voting rolls.”

Newton says his proposal was not motivated by hopes of suppressing the vote.

“Folks who are criminals should not have the right to vote until they show that they are upstanding citizens,” he said. “My hope would be that the vast majority would have their rights restored, fully.”

Supporters weigh issue

Newton’s bill, Senate Bill 721, also would require photo identification cards to vote and would revise the state’s early voting and same-day registration laws. It was sent to a Senate committee on April 3. The House voter ID bill, which does not address voting by convicted felons, was approved by the House Finance Committee 18-10 last week and is expected to be debated by the full House starting Wednesday.

Twelve of Newton’s fellow Republican senators co-sponsored his voting bill. Shirley B. Randleman, a one-term senator from Wilkesboro, said the five-year waiting period for felons would indicate how well the corrections system is succeeding in rehabilitating inmates for the long term.

“I worked in the court system for 34 years,” said Randleman, a retired clerk of superior court. “I know there are high recidivism rates and often additional [criminal] acts that may bring additional felony charges.”

But not all of the co-sponsors agree with the five-year waiting period for felony offenders. Warren Daniel, an attorney and two-term senator from Morganton, said he thinks photo identification for voters is a good idea and that he “wholeheartedly supports shortening early voting,” but that restoration of voting rights for felony offenders “is not a burning issue” for him.

“That’s not an issue that’s driving me to support this bill,” Daniel said.

Gary Bartlett, director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, said the state does not track of the number of ex-offenders who annually regain their right to vote in the state.

The agency is notified monthly by the state Department of Correction about those convicted of felony offenses who are registered voters so their names can be stricken from the voting rolls.

Constitutional questions

So far this year, more than 3,100 felony offenders have been removed from the state’s voter rolls, on top of 9,621 last year and 8,167 in 2011.

There were 299 cases of voter fraud involving people wrongfully voting in the 2008 presidential election after they were convicted of felonies, according to the state Board of Elections.

Bartlett said he wonders if Newton’s proposal conflicts with the state’s Constitution.

“I would like to hear the legal arguments on both sides,” he said.

Newton said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld other states’ denial of citizenship rights as “within the bounds of the Constitution.” He said that even after a person completes a prison sentence and probation, they aren’t necessarily deserving of their rights.

“It’s not a question of paying a debt to society,” he said. “We’re talking about the restoration of voter rights. That’s a serious civic responsibility.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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