Watch Janai Nelson discuss this case on Maddow.
Over the last few months, I’ve been following the case of Pamela Moses, a 44-year-old activist in Memphis who was convicted in November for trying to register to vote while she was ineligible. On Monday, Moses, who is Black, was sentenced to six years and one day in prison.
To my eye, the case is far more complex than it seems.
Amy Weirich, the local prosecutor, has trumpeted both the conviction and the sentence in press releases. She has highlighted that Moses has an extensive criminal record, and she told a straightforward story about Moses’ voting crime. In 2015, Moses pleaded guilty to perjury and tampering with evidence in connection to allegations that she stalked and harassed a local judge. Tampering with evidence is one of a handful of felonies that causes someone to permanently lose their voting rights in Tennessee. Nonetheless, Moses, still on probation, knowingly tried to register to vote in 2019.
The case caught my attention for a few reasons. First, it is rare to see a prosecutor bring criminal charges against someone for election crimes, and I was curious whether this was a bona fide case of fraud or of someone who had made a mistake. Second, there has been growing awareness of racial disparities in punishments for election-related crimes. Black people such as Crystal Mason and Hervis Rogers have faced years in prison for making mistakes about their voting eligibility. White voters have received much lighter sentences for election-related crimes.
Weirich’s office did not respond to interview requests, but the more I looked into Moses’ case, the more I realized the case wasn’t straightforward at all. Behind the scenes, Tennessee officials conceded that they had made a series of mistakes concerning Moses’ voting eligibility.
In 2015, when Moses pleaded guilty to her felony, she says no one told her she couldn’t vote. “They never mentioned anything about voting. They never mentioned anything about not voting, being able to vote … none of that,” Moses told me last year. (She added she hadn’t discussed the case with her two sons, 24 and 13, but described it as “traumatic”.)
Moses didn’t know anything was amiss until 2019, when she launched a long-shot mayoral campaign. Election officials said she couldn’t appear on the ballot because of her felony. When they began to look into her eligibility, they also realized she had never been taken off the voter rolls. Moses went to court and asked a judge to clarify whether she was still on probation, and the court confirmed that she was. What happened next is at the crux of the case against her.
Moses did not believe the judge had correctly calculated her sentence. So she went to the local probation office and asked an officer to figure it out. An officer filled out and signed a certificate confirming her probation had ended. In Tennessee, people with felony convictions who want to vote need that document from a correction official. Moses submitted it to local election officials along with a voter registration form.
But the day afterwards, an official at the corrections department wrote an email to election officials saying a probation officer had made an “error” on Moses’ certificate. Moses was still serving an active felony sentence, they wrote, and was not eligible to vote. The department offered no explanation for the mistake.
Such errors are actually fairly common in Tennessee, where the voting rules are extremely confusing for people with felonies, Blair Bowie, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, told me. A 2017 study found that about 8% of the certificates submitted were rejected because the voters remained ineligible. Bowie said she was unaware of any voter in the state ever facing criminal charges for submitting a certificate but later turning out to be ineligible to vote….