In North Carolina, a Rush to “Restore Hope in the Vote” in People with Felony Convictions

More than 50,000 North Carolinians can vote this fall thanks to a court ruling that restored the rights of people on probation and parole. But their gains are precarious.

Kelan Lyons   |    November 4, 2022

At an event put up by civil rights advocates in North Carolina in October, a booth encourages people to register to vote (photo courtesy of Forward Justice/Facebook)

This article was produced as a collaboration between Bolts and NC Policy Watch.

One hot afternoon in early October, Corey Purdie helped put the finishing touches on the exterior of the 300-square-foot house at Broad and Queen streets in New Bern, North Carolina. He touched up a corner of the building with white paint as other volunteers interrupted him to ask questions, say hello and point out that he was using the wrong paintbrush. Soon, an elderly man would move into the bright blue house, the first place he’d be able to call his own after spending more than eight years in prison and about three in a halfway house.

Purdie, the founder and director of Wash Away Unemployment, helps people released from prison transition to life in the free world by providing a set of “wraparound services.” Purdie and his organization connect the formerly incarcerated to education, housing and employment opportunities. They support people in reconnecting with their families, and assist in getting them mental health treatment.

Those amenities extend beyond essentials like a roof over somebody’s head or a job to pay their bills: It also includes registering people to vote. 

North Carolinians lose the right to vote when convicted of a felony, and until this election cycle they could not regain it until they had served all parts of their sentence, including probation, parole, and post-release supervision. But a ruling by the Superior Court earlier this year upended those rules. It allowed people to vote as soon as they leave prison, even while on probation or parole.

The ruling has “unlocked” the vote of more than 56,000 North Carolinians, who otherwise would have been barred from voting in the 2022 midterm. And it has set up a new stream of service for Purdie. 

“Not being able to vote and having that liberty taken away does something to the mental aspect of being able to have the confidence to move past any of the hurdles that they have in life,” Purdie said. “Being told ‘no’ or being told you’re not allowed to use your voice is one of the most traumatizing aspects that can happen in a person’s life. Almost like telling a child to shut up.”

“After a while, people lose hope,” Purdie said. “Our job is to restore hope in the vote.”

Corey Purdie, the founder and director of Wash Away Unemployment (Kelan Lyons/NC Policy Watch)

Purdie and others participating in the “Unlock Our Vote” movement—organizations like Black Voters Matter, the Community Success Initiative and the NC Justice Center—are registering and encouraging the newly re-enfranchised North Carolinians to vote, framing the court ruling as the largest expansion of voting rights in the state since the 1960s. [Note: NC Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.]

North Carolina is now one of 24 states where anyone not presently incarcerated has the right to vote. (Two of those also enable people to vote from prison, as does Washington, D.C.). The only people barred from voting in the state this fall are those who are in prison for a felony.

But this expansion of the franchise is precarious because an appeal of the Superior Court’s decision is pending before the North Carolina Supreme Court. Oral arguments won’t take place until the first quarter of 2023. Democrats currently enjoy a 4-3 majority on the high court, but the partisan make-up may flip in the November election, where voters will decide two seats; as a result, the Superior Court judges’ ruling could receive a more skeptical review.

Purdie thinks there is strength in numbers. The more people he and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit register, he believes, the trickier it would be for state courts to backtrack.

“It’s easier for the judges to make a decision to overturn something that affects 100 people versus something that affects 56,000,” he said. “If we registered 56,000 people, them judges are gonna think twice about overturning 56,000 people back to non-participating status.”

“I felt as if I was not a citizen”

It is not an easy or fast sell to convince someone to register. Purdie gets that. He spent eight years in prison starting when he was 16. It took him years to cast a ballot after getting out.

“I was so traumatized about it, and didn’t really think it mattered,” he said.

But in time he came to understand the power voting affords – the ability to put people in office willing to fight for his interests, “candidates who may be friendly to those that want to have a second opportunity at life.” When he finally voted in 2008, “it was traumatizing and liberating at the same time,” he says. “When I walked out, I said, ‘Man, I did it. I got a piece of myself back.’”

Purdie now talks to a lot of people getting out of prison who have things to do that seem more pressing: Getting a driver’s license and figuring out transportation. Finding a landlord willing to rent to them and an employer who wants to hire them. He also stresses why life is so difficult when they come home from prison: Elected officials pass laws that make it hard for people with a criminal record to find work or secure housing. And those officials can be voted out of office.

Central to Purdie and his peers’ efforts is the idea that people who have been disenfranchised are especially effective in convincing people of the importance of voting.

“We believe that people hear you different if they know you share their same story,” said Dennis Gaddy, the founder and executive director of Community Success Initiative and a plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to this year’s ruling. (The lawsuit was originally filed by Forward Justice in 2019 on behalf of organizations like Community Success Initiative, Justice Served, and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP.)

Gaddy was disenfranchised for 13 years—seven and a half years on probation, and five and a half years in prison. He still couldn’t vote in 2008 when the country elected Barack Obama, its first Black president. For Gaddy, who is Black, this was a dehumanizing experience that clashed with the clear memories he has from childhood of riding through rural North Carolina with his mother, helping people register to vote by hand.

“I was always taught that my vote was my voice, and that we should all exercise our right as citizens to use our voice through the ballot,” Gaddy said in an affidavit in the lawsuit. “By not being able to use my voice in this way, I felt as if I was not a citizen.”

A legacy of racism

The history of felony disenfranchisement in North Carolina is rooted in racism. Much of the 65-page Superior Court ruling delves into the ways white supremacists used the criminal justice system as a means of taking away Black citizens’ right to vote beginning in the late 1860s.

In 1865, former plantation owners reeling from losing their enslaved workers were looking for labor to continue their farming operations, said Irving Joyner, a law professor at North Carolina Central University’s School of Law. Scores of formerly enslaved people were arrested on vagrancy charges and then forced to participate in a convict-labor system as part of their sentence.

Joyner sees a connection between the disenfranchisement of Black citizens in the 1860s because of vagrancy laws and the disproportionate number of Black citizens currently disenfranchised because they are on supervision for a felony.

“This is the end result of what started back in 1865 and continued up until it was more modernized, but still had these shackles on people to prevent them from being able to vote,” Joyner said.

North Carolina’s constitution forbade African Americans from voting between 1835 and 1868. It also disenfranchised “infamous” people, those convicted of crimes like treason, bribery or perjury, as well as those who received an “infamous punishment” like whipping.

North Carolina adopted a new constitution in 1868 as a condition of rejoining the union after the Civil War. It allowed all males to vote, got rid of property requirements for voting and abolished slavery. However, it still allowed for people to be disenfranchised if they were punished for their crimes by a whipping. The state amended the constitution in 1875, passing an array of measures to control and disempower African Americans. One of those amendments imposed a lifetime ban on voting for anyone convicted of a felony. 

Joyner said the initial purpose of felony disenfranchisement laws was to disenfranchise African American voters. After the Wilmington massacre of 1898, the state redoubled its efforts to dilute the voting power of Black residents through felony disenfranchisement, poll taxes, the “grandfather clause” and literacy tests to suppress the vote.

In the 1970s, lawmakers slightly loosened the disenfranchisement rules. They enabled people to regain their voting rights once they completed their sentence, including probation and parole terms—this is the status quo struck down earlier this year.

Still, Joyner said the modifications did not sever the system’s initial purpose: disenfranchising Black citizens. “It was borne with that intent,” he said. “It’s kind of like your name. Unless you change it, it stays with you forever.”

The Superior Court agreed earlier this year. “The legislature cannot purge through the mere passage of time an impermissibly racially discriminatory intent,” Judges Lisa C. Bell and Keith O. Gregory wrote in their opinion. The current felony disenfranchisement system “continues to carry over and reflect the same racist goals that drove the original 19th century enactment.”

According to a study by the Sentencing Project, 2.5 percent of Black adults in North Carolina were barred from voting during the 2020 presidential election due to a past criminal conviction, compared to 0.8 percent of the rest of the voting-age population.

This inequality also means that the Superior Court’s ruling disproportionately relieves Black people. Reports filed as part of the ongoing lawsuit state that Black people make up 42 percent of the pool of people whose vote was “unlocked” this year; only 22 percent of the voting age population in North Carolina is Black. There is not one single county in the state that has a higher rate of disenfranchisement for whites than for Blacks.

These numbers reflect the deep inequities in the state’s criminal legal system. Black people are arrested, charged, prosecuted, convicted, and serve longer sentences compared to whites, and therefore they are more greatly affected by laws that rely on convictions to block a citizen’s access to the ballot box.

Such widespread disenfranchisement goes beyond depriving individual people of their right to vote, said Theodore Shaw, a law professor at the University of North Carolina and the Director of the school’s Center for Civil Rights.

“The impact is not only personal, but it has a collective impact on Black and brown communities,” he said. Felony disenfranchisement represents “a continuing individual judgment about their worthiness and whether they have a place in the larger society.”

Kristie Puckett-Williams, an ACLU of North Carolina organizer and a field captain for Unlock Our Vote, was detained over drug charges in 2009 before agreeing to a guilty plea to avoid giving birth in jail. “The system racially profiled my addiction,” said Puckett-Williams, adding, “That the system was dysfunctional does not negate the harm that I caused.”

She could not vote during the 15 years she was on probation, but she took part in the first election in which she was able to. 

“Whether the state recognized my humanness or not, I recognized I was still a human,” she said.

“These people are going to be so tired of us”

In the campaign’s final stretch, North Carolina’s civil rights organizations are sounding the alarm that public authorities are not informing people of their new rights, or that some counties may be providing individuals with false information, for instance that they may need paperwork to vote. 

Disenfranchisement rules around the country are very confusing, and many individuals who are eligible choose to not head to the polls because they feel uncertain of their rights. Recent high-profile criminal prosecutions of people who made voting errors in Florida, Tennessee, and Texas, as well as North Carolina under the state’s old rules, have ratcheted up worries of intimidation. North Carolina’s new rules are comparatively straightforward, and advocates want the state to communicate that more aggressively.

In the meantime, these groups have taken it upon themselves to conduct extensive outreach.

“This ain’t about Ds or Rs because quite frankly I’ve enfranchised some folks who probably are diametrically opposed to my political viewpoint,” he said. “And you know what, that’s okay. Because I actually believe in democracy, that people should have a choice to be able to pick who they choose.”

David Bright, a 46-year-old white man who registered to vote when he was 18 and voted Republican his whole life, has not been able to vote for about a decade, ever since he was put on probation. 

He says he felt embarrassed and shied away from conversations with friends around election season. He couldn’t even vote for the school board that governs where his daughter gets her education, limiting his ability to not only vote for his own interests, but his children’s.

David Bright registered to vote when he was 18 but hasn’t been able to cast a ballot for much of the past decade (Kelan Lyons/NC Policy Watch)

Bright was one of the people in New Bern who was working with Purdie on the tiny house in October. He wore a white “Unlock Our Vote” T-shirt and paint-speckled pants and shoes as he sat in the shade eating a sandwich during lunchtime. He had only recently heard about the Superior Court ruling, but he was happy to have the opportunity to vote again.

Being re-enfranchised lets him show the world that he’s not the same as he once was, he said. It telegraphs a message to everyone he had to tell he couldn’t cast a ballot: “We do change.”

Puckett-Williams sees her own organizing as a way to give back to a community that she hurt when she was in active addiction.

“Me showing up every day in the community doing what I can do is my way of atoning for the behaviors that I did in the past,” she said. “This is just one redemption, one reconciliation that I can make.” Through her voting and advocacy, she hopes that more elected officials will recognize that the formerly incarcerated are their constituents, too. 

“The conditions of incarceration that I and others have endured is a direct result of those who are in office,” she said. “The kind of justice you receive is based on who is in power.”

As much as disenfranchising someone revokes their ability to choose their government, it also implicitly acknowledges the power they would have if they enjoyed unrestricted access to the ballot. That’s what Diana Powell, executive director of Justice Served NC and a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, says when she tries to register people who tell her they don’t see the point in voting.

“If our vote wasn’t so important,” she said, “why would they fight us so hard to silence our voice and take that right away?”