Lanisha Bratcher was finishing breakfast when there was a knock on her door. She had been discharged from the hospital the night before following a miscarriage that left her mourning the loss of her child. It was the police with a warrant for her arrest.
Her crime? Voting in the 2016 presidential election. Bratcher was on probation after being convicted of assault and North Carolina law mandates that people convicted of felonies can only vote once they complete their criminal sentences, including probation and parole, entirely. The state board of elections released a report finding there wasn’t a standardized process for informing people on probation they couldn’t vote. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group described the many cases in which people get prosecuted for unintentionally voting illegally “disturbing”. Bratcher is among four people with felonies in her county – all of whom are black – who have been indicted for illegally voting in 2016.
Bratcher now faces up to 19 months in prison because she did not realize she had actually been stripped of the right to vote. Her lawyer says she’s being punished based on a Jim Crow-era law that was intended to disenfranchise African Americans. Getting charged with voter fraud upended Bratcher’s life. It took an hour and a half to drive each way for court appearances. Even though she was on the verge of advancing at her factory job for Burt’s Bees, the court appearances caused her to miss work. She eventually left her job, and said the pending criminal charge against her made it harder for her to find a new one, she said. After she was arrested, the Hoke county sheriff’s office announced the voter fraud charges on Facebook and mugshots of Bratcher and her co-defendants appeared in the local news.
The state’s policy of banning people convicted of felonies from voting is rooted in a late 19th century effort by North Carolina Democrats to limit voting power of newly-enfranchised African Americans as whole. In 1898, the North Carolina Democratic party spoke of the need “to rescue the white people of the east from the curse of negro domination”. Since then, North Carolina lawmakers have tweaked the law, but its core – stripping felons of their voting rights while they serve criminal sentences – remains in place. The vast majority of the people caught up in the law are African American. John Carella, Bratcher’s lawyer, explains that the goal is to dissuade black voters from going to the polls.
Americans lose the right to vote if they are convicted of a felony in 48 of the 50 states. But each of those states has widely different policies on when and if felons can vote again. If someone votes while they are serving a criminal sentence, it is a so-called “strict liability” felony in North Carolina. That means that prosecutors don’t have to prove Bratcher and other people convicted of felonies intended to vote illegally in order to convict them.
This statute was designed after the civil war as a reaction to growing African American political power in the state, said Gary Freeze, a history and American studies professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.
He points out “White supremacists did not want another reform effort – hence the severe penalty for those who could be proven to be voting with a criminal background.”
When lawmakers passed the felon-voting law, they were open about their racial intent. The 1898 Democratic handbook in the state talked about voting restrictions necessary “to protect the white voters of the State against having their honest votes off-set by illegally and fraudulently registered negro votes”. One cartoon in a local newspaper featured a picture of a “white supremacy plum”, with a caption encouraging voters to “pluck it” on election day in 1898. Another cartoon featured a vampire flying over North Carolina with the words “negro rule” on its wings.
And in 1903, Charles Aycock, then governor of the state, openly spoke about how disenfranchisement was part of solving the “negro problem”. “I am inclined to give you our solution of this problem. It is, first, as far as possible, under the fifteenth amendment, to disfranchise him; after that, let him alone; quit writing about him; quit talking about him,” he said.
In 2018, 12 people with felony convictions in the state were prosecuted for illegal voting. The decision to prosecute the group – which came to be known as the Alamance 12 – drew national outrage because they also said they didn’t know they were ineligible. Civil rights groups are also challenging the state’s felon voting law, saying it unconstitutionally disenfranchises nearly 70,000 people in the state who are on parole or probation for a felony.Carella argues the statute remains as racist as it was at the turn of the 20th century.