- Restrictions on felon voting are allowed by both the U.S. and NC constitutions, and is the norm for most states.
- Despite claims that say otherwise, convicted felons on parole are still serving their sentences and have not yet fully repaid their debt to society
- Of all the restrictions placed on those on parole, the plaintiffs’ focus on voting is both curious and misplaced
Should a convicted felon who has not completed his or her full sentence be allowed to vote? The North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) thinks so. The organization joined several other groups in a lawsuit aimed at forcing the state of North Carolina to allow convicted felons serving their time on parole to vote.
Have parolees fully “reentered society?”
The plaintiffs laid out a basic goal of restoring the voting rights of an estimated 70,000 convicted felons currently on probation or parole.
They claim that these felons have “reentered society.” What they cannot claim is that those individuals have fully paid their debt to society. Those who are on parole or probation are still serving their sentences.
(Technically, most North Carolina prisoners are released to post-release supervision rather than parole. The statuses are functionally similar, and I will continue to use the more common term in this article.)
A felon on parole has not “fully returned to society” as Dennis Gaddy, the head of one of the organizations that started the lawsuit, claimed. Parole is part of a felon’s sentence. It is a period when the felon is still under government supervision. During and after parole, there are a host of rights and privileges most citizens enjoy that parolees do not. Parolees remain under the supervision of government officials, their freedom of movement is limited, and they may be required to “submit to random drug/urine screenings, secure a job, pay restitution ordered by the court at the time of sentencing and refrain from contact with victims/survivors and their families.” So, felons on parole have not fully returned to society and much of their lives are supervised and limited.
Until they have fully reentered society by fully paying their debt to society, restricting their right to vote is justified.
Of all the limits imposed on parolees, why only focus on voting?
It is curious that the plaintiffs only focus on allowing those still serving their sentences to vote. There are a host of other rights and privileges that felons lose, such as serving on a jury, owning a firearm, or holding elected office. As I previously noted, those on parole also have a host of restrictions that have a greater impact on their daily lives than not being able to vote. So why the focus on voting?
The narrow focus on voting rights for felons still serving their sentence suggests that the groups backing the lawsuit believe that those felons could be a potent political force to help their preferred candidates win elections. Aside from the moral issue of trying to use felons for the groups’ own political ends, their quest is likely a fool’s errand; research suggests that the voting rate of convicted felons may be as low as five percent. If current law impacts 70,000 felons, that means that as few as 3,500 felons still serving their sentences would vote in any given year statewide. Even if they all voted the same way, they would almost never make a difference in statewide elections.
In addition to being morally and legally wrong, the plaintiffs are evidently wrong on the impact of felon voting restrictions on elections.
Restricting the right of felons to vote is both constitutionally and practically correct
While the plaintiffs claim in their complaint that felon disenfranchisement is just a legacy of Jim Crow in the South, the practice is the norm throughout the United States. Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically allows states to deny the right to vote to anyone for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” The practice is also enshrined in Article VI, Section 2 of North Carolina’s 1971 Constitution:
No person adjudged guilty of a felony against this State or the United States, or adjudged guilty of a felony in another state that also would be a felony if it had been committed in this State, shall be permitted to vote unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.
So, under both the United States and North Carolina constitutions, the state is well within its authority to require felons to fully complete their sentences before their voting rights are restored.
North Carolina is hardly alone in denying the right to vote to those serving a felony sentence. Over three-fifths of the states in the union have felon voting restrictions as strong or stronger than North Carolina’s. Our state is among the plurality of states that automatically restore the right to vote upon the full completion of a felon’s sentence, including probation and/or parole. According to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislators, North Carolina is one of 21 states that prohibit felons from voting until they have completed all their sentences. Another 11 states have further restrictions on felons voting. For example, Nebraska requires a two-year waiting period after completing parole before voting rights are restored and, in Arizona, a person with two or more felony convictions must apply to the courts to have voting rights restored.
Both constitutionally and in practice, North Carolina strikes the right balance on felon voting.
Through their own actions, felons have demonstrated that they do not respect our laws or the rights of others. While felons on parole are no longer in prison, they are still serving their sentences and rightfully have many of the rights and privileges of citizenship, including voting, taken from them until their sentences are completed. The lawsuit seeking to change these restrictions is baseless.