Ebonie Oliver, a 24-year-old packaging worker who lives in Burlington, North Carolina, isn’t sure if she’ll ever vote again.
Oliver got a voter registration card in the mail before the 2016 election and went to the polls on Election Day because she wanted to make her voice heard. Oliver was on probation at the time for a felony offense, and she didn’t realize at she was violating a North Carolina law that bars felons from voting while on probation. While many district attorneys have chosen not to prosecute felons who unknowingly vote illegally, Alamance County District Attorney Patrick Nadolski, a Republican, pursued Oliver and 11 other people with felony voting charges punishable by up to two years in prison.
Over the last few weeks, Oliver and eight of the other people charged have agreed to plead guilty to a lesser misdemeanor and serve a year of unsupervised probation with 24 hours of community service. While those nine people won’t have to serve any prison time, those who faced the charges say the ordeal has made them unlikely to ever cast a ballot again.
Oliver, who will have to pay more than $700 in fees related to her case, told HuffPost in December that no one had ever told her she was ineligible to vote and that she wouldn’t have voted if she knew. Even though the judge had told her she could vote when her new probation expired, she might just stay clear of the polls to avoid any further confusion.
“I’m not trying to even go back down this course again,” she said.
I’m not trying to even go back down this course again Ebonie Oliver
Keith Sellars accepted an identical plea deal to Oliver’s on Monday. The 44-year-old says he watched the 2004 presidential election from prison and has gone out with the NAACP and other groups for years to help people register to vote. He says he was unaware that he was doing something illegal when he cast a ballot while on probation in the 2016 election. He found out he had broken the law when a police officer pulled him over for running through a stop sign and then arrested him because there was a warrant out for the illegal voting charge. They handcuffed him and arrested him in the middle of a highway while his 10- and 7-year-old daughters cried in the back seat.
“I’m very discouraged to vote. Right now, it’s going to really take a mighty wind from heaven to make me vote again,” Sellars said.
Robert Chase Wade, 29, who is white, first learned he was being charged with illegal voting from a HuffPost report in December. Wade said then that the news gave him “unmitigated fear” and that he would never vote again. He has since accepted a plea deal.
Nadolski’s decision to pursue charges was unusual. In 2017, the North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement opened 562 investigations into cases where felons were suspected of voting, and just 227 were referred to local district attorneys, who have the discretion to decide whether to prosecute. Just 17 of those referrals resulted in indictments.
It’s going to really take a mighty wind from heaven to make me vote again Keith Sellars
Part of the reason it is difficult to bring charges, even though the state does not have to prove intent, is because there is considerable confusion around when a felon becomes eligible to vote. In North Carolina, felons lose the right to vote once convicted and only get it back once they complete their entire sentences, including parole or probation
Last year, the state board of elections acknowledged the information felons get about their voting rights could be improved. Officials have since updated a pamphlet it gives to people once they are released from prison with language about voting rights (the new language does not say anything explicitly about voting while on probation).
Forty-eight states disenfranchise felons for some period of time after a conviction, but the rules about when people can get their voting rights back vary from state to state. The process can be complex, and people can be disenfranchised by confusion.
In a county that is about two-thirds white, nine of the 12 people charged with voting illegally are African-American. Oliver and Sellars are black.
In 2016, a federal court struck down a North Carolina law that cut early voting and required voters to show certain forms of identification at the polls. The court said the law was written to target African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
Nadolski, who lost a May Republican primary for his job and is now running for a judgeship, has defended his decision to prosecute, telling the Times-News it was necessary to preserve the integrity of the election system.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented Sellars and four others in their case, said their clients never should have faced charges for voting.
“No one should have to face the possibility of prison time for the act of casting a vote that they believed they were eligible to cast,” the group said in a statement. “These charges sought to punish people whose only intent was to participate in our democracy. All of the charges should have been dismissed and the law that led to these prosecutions should be deemed unconstitutional.”
The cases of the 12 voters ― called the “Alamance 12” by some ― has prompted some in the community who have heard about them to say they won’t try to vote again out of fear of getting arrested.
Debbie Smith, 64, a volunteer for Down Home NC, a group that has organized protests on behalf of the 12, said she registers people to vote around Alamance County and had recently seen an uptick in people who were hesitant to do so. The cases brought against the Alamance 12, she said, had increased uncertainty in the community about who could vote and raised concern that someone could get in trouble by going to the polls.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about who can vote and who can’t vote. A lot of people are thinking they can’t vote that can,” she said. “It’s really been unfair to a lot of people that now think, well, I better just not even risk it.”
After Anthony Haith, another one of the 12, accepted a plea deal on Monday, Smith approached him in the hallway of the courthouse and tried to explain to him that he would be eligible to vote once he completed his felony probation. She said he told her he was scared to.
“I told him that DA lost the election to be DA again, so now he’s running for judge. I said, do you really want to be part of that guy being up there as a judge next year?”