Five people facing prison time for voting in the 2016 presidential election while on probation had their felony charges dismissed Monday.
The Alamance County district attorney charged 12 people with voting while serving active felony sentences.
That charge was dismissed as part of plea deals for Whitney Brown, 32, and Anthony Haith, 40, as well as Neko Rogers, 36, Keith Sellars, 44, and Willie Vinson, Jr., 29.
They pleaded to misdemeanor obstruction of justice under the Alford doctrine and were sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation and 24 hours of community service. (An Alford plea accepts a guilty verdict without admitting guilt.)
State law bars people who are on probation 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. Alamance County was one of a handful of counties where prosecutors brought charges. Nine of the 12 people charged in Alamance are African-American.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice sought to have the charges dismissed in Alamance, arguing that the 1901 law Brown was charged under was aimed at keeping African-Americans from voting and is unconstitutional. A hearing was never heard on that motion, said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, the organization’s spokesman.
Threaded throughout the hearings Monday were statements by defense lawyers that their clients did not know they were not allowed to vote while on probation. Probation officers never told their clients that they couldn’t vote, they never received notices from the elections board that they had lost their voting rights, and they had not been removed from the voter rolls until after the election. Sellars’ lawyer said Sellars checked his status before he cast his ballot and he found he was listed as an active voter on the elections website.
Vinson had voted in every election since he was eligible, was active in political campaigns and volunteered to drive other voters to the polls, his lawyer Ivy Johnson told Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway.
Even with his extensive involvement in the political process, Vinson didn’t know he was ineligible nor was he told he was ineligible to vote because he was on probation, Johnson said.
“He’s not sure he’s ever going to vote again, after all of this,” she said. “This is someone who has been an active participant in our democratic process, and has shared all of core democratic values and now, because of this case, he may not ever participate again.”
After the hearings, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice released a prepared statement saying its clients made a hard decision to plead guilty to lesser charges, even though they believe the century-old law was enacted “with an intent to discriminate against people of color and intimidate communities from voting.”
“All of the charges should have been dismissed and the law that led to these prosecutions should be deemed unconstitutional,” the statement said.
Haith’s supporters applauded as he left the courtroom, but outside Haith said he would never vote again and would tell his four children not to vote.
Haith said he was excited to vote in 2016 and didn’t know he couldn’t. “I watched CNN and NBC, and they’re telling me to vote,” he said.
Haith said his life was upended by the charge, and that he was denied an apartment because of it.
“When they came to arrest me, I thought it was a joke,” he said.
His lawyer, Mani Dexter of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, told Ridgeway that the felony voting law is a vestige of a time when the state actively sought to disenfranchise African-American voters.
With Haith’s decision not to vote again, “the purpose of the statute has been fulfilled,” she said.