MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Some legal experts view as excessive and baffling the six-year prison sentence given to a Tennessee activist convicted of illegally registering to vote while on probation.
Pamela Moses was convicted in November and sentenced to six years and a day on Jan. 31 by Shelby County Criminal Court Judge W. Mark Ward. The judge told Moses that he would consider placing her on probation after nine months if she completes certain prison programs and maintains good behavior, the district attorney’s office in Memphis said in a news release.
Moses, who is Black, was convicted of multiple felonies and placed on probation in 2015, but she thought she was eligible to vote and tried to register in 2019. Some legal experts say the sentence illustrates the depth of the challenges faced by convicted felons when they try to have their voting rights restored and pointing out racial factors involved in the case.
David Becker, a former attorney in the voting section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said there is a movement among both conservatives and liberals to change “punitive and restrictive laws” that effectively disenfranchise people who have committed felonies but are not incarcerated and seek to return to society by exercising their right to vote. Many states are moving toward extending voter eligibility to such people, he said.
“It appears that Tennessee is an outlier here, that it is maintaining very restrictive laws that are difficult to navigate, and so difficult to navigate that I don’t think voters understand them and have questions and have misunderstandings about them,” Becker said Wednesday.
Voter registration fraud is not a crime someone commits out of malice, and registering to vote should not be difficult, he said.
“In many cases around the country where there’s issues related to alleged voter registration fraud, almost every single case arises from legitimate confusion about difficult-to-understand laws,” said Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. “How a sentence of six years might fit the crime here, I have to admit, is baffling to me.”
Moses, 44, was placed on probation for seven years after she pleaded guilty in 2015 to felony charges of tampering with evidence and forgery, the district attorney’s office said. She also was convicted of misdemeanor counts of perjury, stalking, theft under $500 and escape.
Moses was permanently barred from voting in Tennessee because of the tampering with evidence conviction, the district attorney’s office said. She filed a certificate of restoration and application for voter registration with the Shelby County Election Commission, according to evidence presented at her November trial. Moses was still serving probation when she filed the documents, prosecutors said.
Moses, a Black Lives Matter activist who ran for city mayor in 2019, said she thought her probation from a 2015 guilty plea had ended, and that she could begin working to restore her voting rights, the Daily Memphian reported.
Moses applied to have her voting rights restored in 2019. She said the Tennessee Department of Correction gave her a certificate saying her probation had ended, but then rescinded the certificate, the online newspaper reported.
“This case is about prosecutorial misconduct and administrative oversight which should require an immediate change of the law, and our government should spend more time fighting crime rather than suppressing votes,” Moses said in a statement.
Moses has filed a motion for a new trial.
Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for the government watchdog group Common Cause, said the case shows how states can fail to educate people about voting rights and voter reenfranchisement.
She also called the sentence excessive and said Moses’ race is likely a factor.
“It is well understood and well known that the criminal justice system is harsher on Black and brown defendants than it is on white defendants, and there’s plenty of research to show that,” Albert said.
Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the sentence was a “stunning indictment” of a legal system that has historically disenfranchised Black people.
“Voting is one of the most fundamental aspects of our democracy, and the right to do so should not be taken away from anyone,” Henderson said in a statement.