It’s rare that I get to report great news for voting rights these days, so I’m savoring this one: Today, a judge in North Carolina ruled that the state’s intensely bigoted felon disenfranchisement law is unconstitutional, a decision that returns the right to vote to over 55,000 citizens.
First enacted in the 1870s as part of the southern backlash against reconstruction, the law was amended in the 1970s to ban any returned citizen from voting until they’ve paid off all their fines and fees and finished their probation, parole, or supervised release. The law worked exactly as intended; a recent study found that Black North Carolinians make up a whopping 42% of those disenfranchised by the law despite comprising just 21% of the state’s population.
In fact, the Republican state lawyers defending the law didn’t even deny its historic intent or its overwhelming racial bias. Instead, they argued that the state does not have to return the right to vote at all, so the fact that any law that restores those rights does not have to do so in an equitable manner.
Thankfully, the judge wasn’t buying it.
The GOP will of course appeal the decision; already, the Republican head of the state senate election committee has said that they do not believe the court has the right to oversee this issue. (Ironic, given the GOP’s obsession with locking up the court system for the next generation.) But given the Democrats’ control of the NC supreme court, there's a good chance that the ruling will ultimately stand.
The North Carolina Board of Elections is already in the process of updating its website to make it clear that anyone who has been released from prison can register to vote. It’s an incredibly exciting moment, allowing so many people to finally start participating in their communities and having a say in how they are governed.
Contrast that with what happened in Florida, where Republicans in 2019 gutted a successful ballot initiative that would have automatically returned the right to vote to over 1 million people. Now, those Floridians have to pay off all their fines and fees and finish probation and parole. There was nearly good news on that front, too, but GOP interference again stopped the restoration of civil rights.
Some background: A few weeks ago, Florida’s attorney general decided not to appeal a judge’s decision to block a ridiculous cap on donations to ballot initiative campaigns that was passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by Ron DeSantis. There were three big ballot initiatives that should have benefited from that ruling, including an initiative to repeal of the GOP’s fines and fees disenfranchisement law from 2019.
Unfortunately, Sean Shaw, the former state legislator and AG candidate who was running point on the three initiative campaigns, told me last week that the months of uncertainty caused by the now-voided GOP law hobbled their efforts enough that it’s now impossible to collect the huge number of signatures necessary by the deadline, which the judge in the case did not adjust.
Instead, they’ll look to pass the ballot initiatives in 2024, which means that up to 800,000 people won’t be able to vote in the next presidential race.
So in sum, great news out of North Carolina, not-so-great news in Florida. But hey, any good news on voting rights is a welcomed development… especially given how the federal government is dithering away the last best shot we have at passing voting rights laws for the next decade.
So what can we do to help progressives in Florida? How can we help overcome the vast voter suppression happening in the state? Well, again, Democrats in the Senate should be passing the For The People Act right this minute, but absent that, we can support the grassroots groups doing the hard work to register voters and get people to the polls. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is keyed in on helping returning citizens pay off fines and fees and register to vote, while progressive State Rep. Anna Eskamani’s People Power Florida is registering voters across central Florida with a true grassroots operation.
The FRRC has 20 chapters across the state of Florida that offer several different services — all free — to those looking to recover their right to vote. Lawyers are available to provide pro bono guidance to applicants who want to first try to negotiate a waiver or other adjustment to their penalty, an appeal to which some counties are much more amenable than others.
Volunteers otherwise help the currently ineligible navigate any given county’s fines and fees system, which can make it difficult to even figure out how much someone owes; it becomes more complicated still when people owe fines to more than one county. The FRRC then helps the returning citizen pay off whatever they owe, which can be anywhere from a couple of hundred bucks to exponentially more. The wide range makes it hard to pinpoint any kind of typical case, but it averages about $1000. The FRRC has thus far recovered the voting rights of more than 43,000 returning citizens.
CLICK HERE to Donate to Both Florida Voting Rights Organizations via ActBlue!
P.S. Some of this story comes from my Progressives Everywhere
, my free newsletter that focuses on progressive politics and policy, including lots of coverage of state governments you won’t get elsewhere. Every week I send out deep dives and big features such as:
I also spotlight groups that are helping build progressive election power and retake red states. We’ve raised over $6 million for candidates and causes and your help is crucial.
The more subscribers we add, the more I can do to help these progressive campaigns, and the closer I am to hiring other writers to make the newsletter even better for readers.