‘Lose the courts, lose the war’: The battle over voting in North Carolina
This article was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.
NEW BERN, N.C. — As the daylight faded on April 12, 2018, a Craven County sheriff’s deputy pulled over a white pickup. Heather French was sitting in the passenger seat.
The deputy began tailing the truck on the other side of the Trent River and pulled the driver over because his registration was expired. During the stop, the deputy called in a K9 unit from the local police department, which sniffed for drugs as night set in. The officers didn’t find drugs on French, but they searched through her wallet and noticed something else: Twenty-nine imitation one dollar bills.
The officers would later say that the material felt unusual and that each bill had a matching serial number and “pink Chinese lettering stamped on it.” The prop money — which French maintains she never passed off as real money, something law enforcement has not contradicted — would become the reason she was stripped of her right to vote.
Over the next five years, French’s eligibility see-sawed with a series of court rulings. They left her eligible to vote in some elections but not others, and illustrated the power of judges to grant, and to claw back, Americans’ most basic rights.
The rulings also tell a story about the North Carolina Supreme Court, whose Republican majority traces back to changes legislators made in the dying days of 2016. North Carolina is one of eight states where Republican politicians have passed laws that pushed the courts in a conservative direction or helped strengthen Republican control, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.
These changes have ramifications for those states’ residents and, increasingly, for the country. In many ways, North Carolina represents the starkest example.
‘Your voice is your vote’
In 2022, French became eligible to vote due to a ruling in a court case called Community Success Initiative v. Moore. And so last November, she sat down in the kitchen of the RV where her family was living and cast a ballot for the first time.
“I felt like I was finally contributing something positive to society,” she said.
The case that enabled her to vote challenged North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement law, which bars people on probation, parole or post-release supervision from voting. People remain ineligible if their inability to pay fines and fees extended their supervision, even if they have completed all other terms.
The lawsuit was brought by groups that work with North Carolinians wrapped up in the criminal justice system. A key plaintiff, Community Success Initiative, was founded by Dennis Gaddy, 66.
Voting rights are Gaddy’s heritage. He grew up on a dirt road in rural Fairmont, North Carolina, in the 1960s. He and his mother would drive around the area with stacks of the state’s big, brown voter registration forms, “going up to people who didn’t ever think they could even register to vote, and get them registered by hand.”
His father was the chair of what locals called the “Gaddy Precinct.” After polls closed on election day, the elder Gaddy would transport ballots to the smoke-filled rooms of the local board of elections to be tabulated.
“He guarded those ballots like they were gold,” Gaddy remembered. “So I saw that, smelled all that, was part of all that, knew how important it was.”
Gaddy went to law school and became an attorney, but he was disbarred in 1990 and convicted of a string of felonies in the ensuing years. When Barack Obama became the first Black major party presidential candidate in 2008, Gaddy was still on probation and couldn’t vote.
“It was devastating to me,” he said.
He founded Community Success Initiative to assist people leaving prison with reintegrating into their communities. Regaining the right to register and vote was a key piece of that process. “Your voice is your vote,” Gaddy said. “If you can’t vote, you’re not really a citizen in North Carolina.”
Gaddy estimates 90% of the people he works with are Black men, and he saw how the law deprived many of a political voice. He also had clients deprived of the right to vote even when they’d otherwise be eligible, simply because they couldn’t afford to pay the costs associated with their cases.
The lawsuit filed by Gaddy and others made those issues explicit. “This case is about the General Assembly’s intentional discrimination against Black people and against poor people,” Forward Justice’s Daryl Atkinson, one of the attorneys who argued the case for the plaintiffs, told Public Integrity.
In legal filings and expert testimony, the plaintiffs documented how over 56,000 North Carolinians were stripped of the right to vote due to the state’s felony disenfranchisement laws.
Before trial, a three-judge panel found that the requirement imposed an unequal burden, and issued an injunction. That granted the right to vote to roughly 5,000 people who had completed their felony terms except for the payment of fines and fees.
The trial that followed focused on the racially disparate impact of the law. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Black people made up 21% of the voting-age population of North Carolina, but over 42% of those disenfranchised. Black residents were denied the vote at nearly triple the rate of white residents.
Orlando Rodriguez, an attorney for the state legislature, granted during the trial that “the rate of felony convictions and, therefore, felony disenfranchisement, they fall crushingly hard on the African American community.” But, the state argued, that misses the point. Because 100% of people with felony convictions are disenfranchised, the law is not discriminatory.
After a four-day trial, the three-judge panel ruled in March 2022 that North Carolina’s “denial of the franchise to people on felony supervision has the intent and effect of discriminating against African Americans, and unconstitutionally denies substantially equal voting power on the basis of race.”
With the stroke of a pen, tens of thousands of people regained their right to vote.
But the case wasn’t resolved. The state legislature appealed the ruling, putting it before the North Carolina Supreme Court.
The court had recently swung to Republican control, the result of partisan efforts in the state and a number of others to alter how justices reach the bench.
‘A very sudden and brutal use of legislative power’
In 2010, North Carolina Republicans won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in over a century. Two years later, they secured the governor’s mansion.
“Republicans take over and had a lot of pent-up frustration,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “And so they very quickly tried to remake the state in the image that they wanted.”
They also introduced a bill to make North Carolina’s judicial elections partisan contests. The state had adopted nonpartisan elections in 2004, a move supported by Democrats. A switch back to partisan contests would make the state the first in nearly a century to adopt that method.
“Is a person more or less partisan, just because their party is listed on the ballot?” GOP Rep. Bert Jones asked during floor debate. “The answer is no. … Folks, we’re not kidding anybody. Everybody here knows.”
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore did not respond to repeated interview requests from Public Integrity about the bill. The measure passed, with all Republicans who voted supporting the change.
“It was a very sudden and brutal use of legislative power,” said state Sen. Graig Meyer, who was a Democrat in the House in 2016 and voted against the changes.
Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, who wouldn’t take office until 2017, was watching closely. “They believed that if they could make judicial races partisan again, that they would have a much better opportunity to control the courts and inject right-wing politics into the judicial system,” Cooper told Public Integrity this spring. “And they have been successful.”
Since North Carolina returned to partisan Supreme Court elections, Republicans have won five of six contests. After two victories in 2022, they now have a 5-2 majority on the state Supreme Court.
Same case, different results
The court’s new majority wasted no time making its impact felt. On February 3, they announced they would rehear two politically charged cases the court had decided less than two months before.
One concerned a voter ID law that justices found had discriminated against Black voters. The other involved political maps that the court ruled were unconstitutional gerrymanders.
The court also heard the appeal in Community Success Initiative v. Moore, the felony disenfranchisement case.
The North Carolina Supreme Court released its opinions in the three cases on April 28. In each case, the new majority handed a victory to Republicans in the legislature in a 5-2 ruling split along party lines.
In the redistricting case, the majority held that claims of partisan gerrymandering fall outside the purview of the state Supreme Court. The ruling means that the state’s legislative and congressional districts could be redrawn in the coming months — a huge victory for state Republicans.
In Community Success Initiative v. Moore, the majority found that felony disenfranchisement is required by the state constitution. They ruled that the trial court’s finding of discriminatory intent in the law was due to “legal error” and tossed it aside.
The decision split not just on partisan lines, but also on racial ones, with the court’s five white justices in the majority, and its two Black justices dissenting. The ruling ended the right to vote for North Carolinians on probation, parole and post-release supervision for felonies.
They’d had it for just 276 days.
More than 8,600 registered voters immediately lost their eligibility as a result of the ruling, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections.
Kevin Slade, 43, had been looking forward to voting in municipal elections later this year. “It’d be a blessing for me to be able to vote,” he said in early May, just three days after the court ruling was handed down.
Slade served 16 years in federal prisons around the United States, after he pleaded guilty to charges connected to selling cocaine in the New Bern area. Slade had been living in a halfway house since December, and looking out at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers in his hometown felt like a fresh start, even if the ankle monitor he wore was a reminder of his ties to the criminal justice system.
The North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling was a setback. Without changes to the law or the terms of his supervised release, it will be at least five years before he can cast a ballot.
“A year from now, if there’s a politician who was planning to do things that can prevent young males and young females from falling into the situation [that] I fell into? I would want to vote for that person,” Slade said. “They took that away from us.”
Caitlin Swain, an attorney with Forward Justice, which represented plaintiffs in Community Success Initiative v. Moore, was taken aback by the trio of decisions.
“State courts have just become much more hostile to civil rights,” she said.
Heather French, who was convicted of a felony over 29 imitation dollar bills in her wallet, took the news hard, tearing up when she learned about the ruling.
“You just don’t feel like a person,” she said. “Ever since I’ve dealt with being a felon, you don’t really realize how little of a person they view you as.”
At the earliest, French won’t be able to vote until her probation ends in November 2024, after the next presidential election. Debt from unpaid court costs and probation fees could make the wait even longer.
“I know they’re the Supreme Court,” French said in the modest home she shares with her parents, 100 miles from the state’s neoclassical high court building. “I’m here, I’m the felon, and what am I going to say that’s going to matter? But no, I don’t think it’s right.”
Public Integrity journalist Pratheek Rebala contributed to this article.