On Friday, a North Carolina court dramatically expanded the number of voters eligible to participate in the 2020 election. The state may not disenfranchise citizens who owe fines, fees, and other debts from a felony conviction, the Wake County Superior Court ruled on Friday. And while the court limited its order to those affected by wealth-based voter suppression, its reasoning portends a broader ruling in the near future that could restore voting rights to 70,000 more North Carolinians on probation or parole.
Many felon disenfranchisement rules, including North Carolina’s, are rooted in overt white supremacy. After Reconstruction, racist Democrats in the state sought to revoke Black citizens’ suffrage. They accomplished this task, in part, through vague criminal laws that stripped convicted felons of their civil rights—then enforced these laws disproportionately against Black people. North Carolina’s current statute is rooted in an 1877 law spearheaded by a representative who later presided over the lynching of three Black men. At the time, Democrats argued that felon disenfranchisement was necessary to stop “the honest vote of a white man” from being “off-set by the vote of some negro.” Its purpose, alongside other Jim Crow measures like the literacy test, was to “secure white supremacy.”