A Tennessee prosecutor dropped all criminal charges on Friday against Pamela Moses, a Memphis woman with a previous felony conviction who was sentenced to six years and one day in prison in January after she tried to restore her right to vote in 2019.
The voter fraud conviction from her trial was thrown out in February after a judge ruled that the Tennessee Department of Correction had improperly withheld evidence that was later uncovered by The Guardian. Ms. Moses had been set to appear in court on Monday to find out whether prosecutors would pursue a retrial.
But Ms. Moses will no longer face a second trial “in the interest of judicial economy,” Amy Weirich, the district attorney of Shelby County, said in a statement. Ms. Moses spent 82 days in custody on this case, “which is sufficient,” Ms. Weirich said. Ms. Moses is also permanently barred from registering to vote or voting in Tennessee. Ms. Weirich declined to comment further on the case.
The sentencing of Ms. Moses, who is Black, had spurred outrage among voting rights supporters who said that the case highlighted racial disparities in the criminal prosecution of voting fraud cases and opaque voting restoration rights laws that sow confusion and leave many people with felony convictions unsure of their rights.
In the summer of 2019, Ms. Moses, a Black Lives Matter activist, decided she wanted to run for mayor of Memphis, or at the very least vote in the upcoming election.
She knew that she couldn’t do either while she was on probation for prior felony convictions, including a 2015 conviction for tampering with evidence. But she believed her probation was over, according to her lawyer, Bede Anyanwu. Overall, Ms. Moses had 16 prior criminal convictions, including misdemeanor counts from 2015 of perjury, stalking and theft under $500, according to the district attorney’s office.
In September 2019, a judge told Ms. Moses that she was still on probation. But when she went to the probation office to confirm, a probation officer told her she was actually done with her felony probation, records show. The probation officer signed off on her certificate of restoration to vote and Ms. Moses then submitted it to election officials.
A day later, the Department of Correction sent a letter to the Shelby County Election Commission informing it that the probation officer had made a mistake and that Ms. Moses could not vote because she was in fact still on probation.
Video from a January hearing shows Ms. Moses telling Judge W. Mark Ward of the Shelby County Criminal Court, “All I did was try to get my rights to vote back the way the people at the election commission told me.”
Judge Ward responded, “You tricked the probation department into giving you a document saying that you were off probation.”
Ms. Moses was charged with perjury on a registration form and consenting to a false entry on official election documents. The first charge was dropped, but she was convicted of the second charge in November and sentenced in January. Ultimately, Ms. Moses’ felony conviction in 2015 for tampering made her permanently ineligible to vote under Tennessee law regardless of her probation status.
“The case should not have been prosecuted right from the beginning because there was no trickery,” Mr. Anyanwu said. Ms. Moses declined to comment on Saturday.
In recent years, Republican officials have moved to crack down on voter fraud, despite the fact that the crime remains a very rare and often accidental occurrence.
Florida election officials made just 75 referrals to law enforcement agencies regarding potential fraud during the 2020 election, out of more than 11 million votes cast, according to data from the Florida secretary of state’s office. Of those investigations, only four cases have been prosecuted as voter fraud.
Still, legislators in some states have stiffened penalties for voting-related crimes, and district attorneys and state attorneys general have pursued aggressive felony prosecutions in cases that might have been deemed legitimate mistakes.
Voting rights advocates interpret these actions as a voter suppression tactic.
“These prosecutions are intended to scare people who have prior convictions from even trying to register to vote,” said Blair Bowie, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., who has been assisting Ms. Moses and Mr. Anyanwu with the case since October.
These prosecutions also unfairly blame individuals for failing to navigate a voter restoration process that is unclear, she said, adding that state officials are responsible for putting adequate procedures in place for that process.
Ms. Bowie is representing the Tennessee N.A.A.C.P. in a lawsuit against Gov. Bill Lee and other officials that accuses them of failing to establish clearer procedures for individuals with felony convictions, “leading to a rights restoration process that is unequal, inaccessible, opaque and inaccurate.”
Nearly 80 percent of the disenfranchised people in the state have completed probation and parole and are potentially eligible to restore their voting rights, but fewer than 5 percent of potentially eligible Tennesseans have been able to acquire a completed certificate of restoration of voting rights and have tried to register to vote, according to the lawsuit.
Voting rights advocates say that the case also highlights the racial disparity in the prosecution of voter fraud cases.
“What we see consistently is honest mistakes made by returning citizens are penalized to the max, and true bad intentions are not being penalized to the same extent,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “And usually in those cases the defendants are white.”
In October, Donald Kirk Hartle, a white Republican voter, was charged with two counts of voter fraud in Las Vegas after he forged his dead wife’s signature to vote with her ballot. He was sentenced in November to one year of probation, The Associated Press reported.
Edward Snodgrass, a white Republican official in Ohio, forged his dead father’s signature on an absentee ballot in 2020 and was charged with illegal voting, NBC News reported. As part of a plea agreement, he served three days in jail last year, The Delaware Gazette reported.
Ms. Moses is still pursuing the restoration of her civil rights, which include voting rights, through a lawsuit in Shelby County Circuit Court, according to Ms. Bowie. That lawsuit presents a constitutional challenge to the state statute that permanently bars people convicted of tampering with evidence from voting in Tennessee.