Politics & Government

Charged with voting illegally, she's challenging an NC law for its 'racist origins'

A News & Observer cartoon from Sept. 27, 1898, is included in an Alamance County voter's legal motion to dismiss a charge of voting illegally.
A News & Observer cartoon from Sept. 27, 1898, is included in an Alamance County voter's legal motion to dismiss a charge of voting illegally. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The law preventing some people with felony convictions from voting has "toxic racist origins" and is unconstitutional, says an attorney for an Alamance County woman charged with voting illegally.

State law bars people who are on probation or parole for felonies from voting. An audit last year of votes cast in 2016 found 441 suspected felon voters. The state elections office began referring cases to local district attorneys, and prosecutors in Alamance County have brought charges against a dozen people.

A lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice argued in a court filing that the charge against Whitney Brown for voting while she was on probation should be dismissed.

The district attorney in Alamance County, Pat Nadolski, did not return a phone call Friday.

"We hope that the court recognizes the unconstitutionality of this law," said John F. Carella, the lawyer representing Brown and four other Alamance voters.

The law prohibiting people who are on probation or parole after having been convicted of felonies falls disproportionally on African-Americans, Carella said in the court document, and has origins in the state's history of voter suppression.

The law violates the state constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants all citizens equal protection under the law, Carella wrote.

About 68 percent of the suspected felony voters the state board identified were African-American, while about 31 percent were white.

The state passed a law in 1901 to prevent people with criminal convictions from voting . It was aimed at keeping African-Americans from casting ballots and has gone largely unchanged, Carella's court motion says.

"This law continues to have the intended disparate impact on African American voters, which constitute the majority of those who could be convicted under such a law, a majority of those referred by the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement for prosecution, and the vast majority of those facing criminal charges in Alamance County."

The 1901 law followed a voter intimidation campaign in the state in 1898 when armed men rode through African-American communities to discourage voting.

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The Alamance residents who voted improperly in 2016 were on the voting rolls, Carella said, and were not told that they were ineligible.

"The Department of Public Safety and the State Board of Elections should tell counties when someone should be removed," Carella said in an interview. "They should have been removed and told they were not eligible to vote."

In its report, the state elections board said it is working to discourage unlawful voting by updating elections software, increasing data-sharing between counties, and working with public safety and court officials to notify convicted felons that they cannot vote until they are off parole or probation.

Bonner: 919-829-4821: @Lynn_Bonner