by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
NOTE: An earlier version of the post stated that David Lewis not voting in the 2020 general election was “likely voluntary.” The North Carolina Constitution bans voting once a person is convicted, not sentenced, however.
Two events juxtaposed this week raise an interesting question.
First, a federal court sentenced former North Carolina House Representative David Lewis to two years of supervised release (similar to probation).
The question: Should Lewis be allowed to vote in elections next year?
That question is being raised in the second event this week; the trial began for a lawsuit seeking to allow convicted felons serving probation or parole to vote. Under North Carolina law, those convicted of felonies have their right to vote taken away until they complete all of their sentences, including probation or parole.
So, should Lewis be allowed to vote next year?
I wrote about why that is so during an early phase of the lawsuit:
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.
That reasoning still stands.
I checked Lewis’ voter registration using the North Carolina State Board of Elections voter search tool. He did not vote in the 2020 general election. The Harnett County Board of Elections has changed his voter registration to inactive status.
I have no animosity towards David R. Lewis, but he should not have his right to vote restored until after he has completed his probation.
UPDATE: A three-judge panel in Wake Superior Court ruled 2-1 that the felon voting ban is unconstitutional. The judges have not yet written their ruling. Since they struck down the law restoring voting rights and it is the North Carolina Consitution that bans felons from voting “unless that person shall be first restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law,” it will be interesting to see the reasoning they use to strike down the law restoring voting rights to felons while simultaneously expanding voting rights for felons.