Monday, July 22, 2024

‘We now have a voice’: Former inmate votes for first time due to NC’s amended statute

Lifelong Wilmington resident Daquan Peters cast a ballot for the first time in his life last week, due to a change in N.C. voting laws. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — “All power is vested by the people,” Wilmington resident Daquan Peters said Thursday, one day after he cast his first ballot in an election. “I’m now a part of the people.”

Peters is one out of roughly 56,000 felons statewide granted the right to vote in this year’s general election. Earlier this year, a North Carolina superior court determined that denying voting rights to people serving felony sentences but not behind bars violates the state constitution.

READ MORE: Voter Guide 2022: Everything to know ahead of Election Day

“It felt so damn good,” Peters said. 

He cast his ballot during early voting at the downtown location. In the past, he said he has been incarcerated, on probation “or just didn’t care” enough to get involved in politics. 

“Now that justice and freedom is on the ballot, I have to care,” Peters said.

He was referring specifically to “decision makers in the legal system” — such as judges and district attorneys. Peters is also advocating for individual freedom in terms of abortion rights.

“Democrats and Republicans both have blood on their hands,” he said.

A court order earlier in July returned his right to vote, along with other convicted felons not jailed or in prison. Peters, still on federal probation after serving 12.5 years of a 262-month sentence in prison for drug distribution charges, registered immediately. Prior to the ruling, convicted felons would have to carry out their entire sentences — probation, parole, fines and fees — before registering.

With data analyzed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it shows people convicted of felonies in states that permanently disenfranchise felons are 10% more likely to reoffend in three years.

Peters admitted he’s been in and out of prison since he was 15. September marked three years “in society,” he said — the longest timespan in his life.

“Prior to this I wasn’t conscious of anything that had to do with politics,” Peters said. “[Then] I was aware of the power of the vote — just to be able to participate in democracy so my voice is heard; so, I can be accounted for.”

This year convicted felons who are not behind bars can participate in the democratic process. (Port City Daily/file)

What changed this year?

The voting change in North Carolina started three years ago.

Nonpartisan organization Forward Justice, alongside several civil rights groups and ex-offenders, argued similar reasoning upon filing suit in 2019 against the N.C. voting laws. They claimed the current 1973 law, per N.C. GS 13-1, is unconstitutional by denying the right to vote to people who have completed their active sentence or received no such sentence. They furthered that Black residents are disproportionately impacted.

According to UNC Chapel Hill political science professor Frank Baumgartner — who submitted an expert report for the lawsuit — the disenfranchisement rate for Black individuals is more than three times the rate of the white population.

In September 2020, a three-judge panel granted partial judgment for the filed litigation. The result immediately restored voting rights for roughly 5,000 on probation as a result of unpaid financial obligations, ahead of the November 2020 election. The court ruled inhibiting the right to vote based on a person’s wealth or inability to pay fines, fees, and other debts associated with a previous conviction — averaging $2,400 — was unconstitutional.

“In no democracy should lack of wealth be a basis for denying a citizen the right to vote, but in North Carolina, it is,” the litigation states.

That was just the first step. In April, the N.C. Court of Appeals issued a stay to the ruling allowing for it to continue for the 2022 midterm elections. Yet, the fight is not yet over. The decision has been appealed and will be heard by the Supreme Court of North Carolina in 2023 for the final say.

The ongoing news of the lawsuit pushed Peters to research the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions, as well as further look into law and the judicial system.

“Why is it 2022 and Black people are still being harassed, purged, disenfranchised?” Peters asked rhetorically. “What’s so different now than 1898? Now, they do it in a different way — do it to us ‘legally.’”

Peters is referring to convicted felons being removed from the voter roster. State and county boards of elections receive lists of ineligible voters from the state department of public safety and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“When an individual attempts to register to vote, they are immediately checked against these lists to ensure they are eligible,” state board of elections spokesperson Patrick Gannon said. “If someone became newly eligible under the court ruling, they would have been permitted to register by the registration cutoff Oct. 14 — 25 days before Election Day.”

While serving his last sentence, Peters said he became more in tune to the polarities in the justice system, as well as the impact voting can have on elections. Before, he didn’t think his vote counted, nor mattered.

“I realized I was sentenced [on] a racial disparity,” he said.

Peters referenced the 100:1 crack-cocaine ratio, where 5 grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence, while distribution of 500 grams of cocaine carries the same minimum sentence. In 2019, 81% of defendants sentenced for federal crack cocaine distribution were Black.

Peters said voter laws like the one North Carolina overturned keep underserved, historically marginalized communities — namely Black and Latino individuals — out of the political system.

“I think about 1898 and the purpose of that,” he said of the coup d’etat central to the Port City’s history. 

On Nov. 10, 1898, white supremacists organized a mob of around 2,000 people to overthrow the legitimate biracial government in the city and terrorize Black residents, killing anywhere from 60 to 300 Black individuals in the Cape Fear. More than 100,000 registered Black voters fled the city.

“Parallel that with the purpose and reason for disenfranchisement laws,” Peters said. “It’s to suppress the Black political power and it was proven in the [voting] case.”

Of the 7.1 million registered voters statewide, roughly 21% are African American. Almost half, 42%, are also felons unable to vote.

Peters said he took a hard look at his own criminal charges and believes he was unfairly sentenced.

“There’s no way in the world I could have gotten 12 years for drugs and people get less time for murder,” he said. “And I’m supposed to keep my mouth shut and not stand up?”

‘Politics is so wicked’

Peters has become an advocate to encourage others in the community to take action and become part of the democratic system. He has participated in rallying events to mobilize voters this election season and interacted with hundreds of individuals in New Hanover County now eligible to vote.

“And we’re not going to stop until Nov. 8,” he said. “We’re full-throttle ahead.”

He’s assisted more than 30 people with registering, helped others check their voter registration status and has monitored polling locations to ensure no one is facing intimidation tactics. As of Thursday, Peters said he hasn’t personally witnessed any issues of harassment.

“Politics is so wicked,” he said. “What they should realize is that we now have a voice — the outcast, the rejected, the undercast people you don’t want to deal with. We can get you out of that seat. It don’t take but one vote.”

According to the state board of elections, there are more than 2,000 voters in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties that are impacted by the law change. The number does not include federal convictions for Cape Fear residents.

For example, in New Hanover the new law allows at least 1,048 more voters to the roll. Compared to the midterm in 2018, it would add 0.6% more voters, which could have changed the margins in the Senate District 9 race between Michael Lee and Harper Peterson, the latter of whom won by 0.27%. 

Peters added far too often politicians choose “policy over people,” and he hopes more eligible voters mean more candidates will be held accountable for their actions.

“What do you think happens if you prove you don’t identify with us?” Peters asked of the candidates running in the midterms. “I feel good knowing my voice is going to be heard; a demand for them to show us true freedom and justice and equality. That’s what my vote means to me.”

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