“It was the morning after Labor Day and Pamela Moses was in a rush.
All summer, the outspoken activist had been feuding with election officials in Memphis, Tennessee. She wanted to get her name on the ballot for Memphis’s 2019 mayoral election, even gathering enough signatures to do so. But officials said she could not run – a prior felony conviction made her ineligible to seek office.
Now, there was a new problem. In late August, the local elections commission sent her a letter saying they were going to cancel her voter registration. Moses was confused – she had been voting for years. That day, she was determined to sort it out.
But what unfolded over just a few hours that day on 3 September 2019 would upend her life. It would lead to a sudden arrest months later at O’Hare airport in Chicago and culminate in a six-year prison sentence for voter fraud.
Her case would go on to touch a nerve in the US and cause a national outcry. While there’s no comprehensive data on voter fraud prosecutions based on race, it was one of several recent examples in which Black defendants like Moses have faced long criminal sentences for voting errors, while white people have faced little punishment for more fraud. Long after the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests, Black Americans still face significant scrutiny for trying to exercise their right to vote.
To make matters worse there is a byzantine bureaucracy in Tennessee and other US states, which can make it nearly impossible for people with felony convictions to vote again. The system has allowed officials to block people from voting for owing small sums of money and prosecutors to bring charges against others who make good-faith mistakes about their voting eligibility.
But at the center of the Moses case was a relatively simple question: should someone who makes a voting mistake face serious criminal charges?
Nearly everyone in Memphis seems to know Moses, 45, or has heard of her.
She’s a self-taught student of the law – the librarians in the county law library know her by name – and has sued many of the top officials in Memphis, frequently representing herself in court. She’s appeared in local papers over the years. She’s had disagreements with other local activists and founded her own non-profit.
“If she sees something that she feels is unjust, she’s going to say something about it,” said Dawn Harrington, who has been friends with Moses for over two decades and is the executive director of Free Hearts, a criminal justice non-profit. “She’s not going to be afraid of the backlash that might happen.”
“She’ll always take you to the limit,” said Michael Working, a criminal defense attorney in Memphis who has represented Moses and known her for a decade. “She’s willing very often to be publicly flogged by the government on principle.”
In person, Moses is at times mercurial, but often charming. She can rattle off the history of Memphis neighborhoods, the names of local judges, lawyers and statutes that she’s researched, sprinkling in bits of hip-hop history (she also writes and produces her own music). She is fiercely protective of Taj, her teenage son.
Few officials attracted Moses’s ire as much as Amy Weirich, a Republican who served as the district attorney in Shelby county, which includes Memphis. Several years ago, Moses made local headlines when Weirich prosecuted her for stalking and harassing a local judge, tampering with evidence and forgery.
In 2015, Moses pled guilty to those charges and was sentenced to several years of probation. Years later, she would say that pleading guilty and not fighting the case “was the worst mistake of my life”. She believed she was innocent, but the conviction led people to think she was guilty.
Harrington, her longtime friend, said that the case cemented her status as someone who was disliked by people in high office in Memphis. “She had been on the bad side of the powers that be there,” she said.
When Moses pled guilty, there was a hearing in which a judge questioned her and made sure she understood the consequences of her decision. But there was one ramification that neither the judge nor any of the lawyers present brought up: Moses would lose the right to vote for life.
To understand Moses’s case, one needs to know that America has long stripped people convicted of felonies of the vote.
After constitutional amendments in the 19th century expanded the franchise to Black Americans, many states passed felon disenfranchisement laws as a way to continue to keep African Americans from the ballot box and therefore prevent them from wielding political power, said Christopher Uggen, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied the topic closely. He suggested the laws have persisted because people with criminal convictions are stigmatized, and so seeking redress for them is politically fraught.
Today, the laws continue to heavily affect Black Americans – 5.3% of the adult Black population is disenfranchised because of a felony, compared to 1.5% of the non-Black adult population. Overall, an estimated 4.6 million people can’t vote because of a felony conviction in the US.
Moses’s home state of Tennessee strips any person convicted of a felony of the right to vote. Nearly 472,000 people of voting age can’t vote in Tennessee because of a felony conviction, the vast majority of whom have completed their sentence, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice non-profit. It’s estimated that more than one in five Black people of voting age in the state can’t vote because of a felony.
In Tennessee, it is also extremely difficult for these people to get their voting rights back once they complete their sentences. There are three different sets of rules, depending on when the person was convicted. A request to even just fill out the state’s required application for the restoration of voting rights can be rejected for any reason – without explanation.
Tennessee’s confusing system isn’t unusual. Many US states, particularly in the south, require anyone with a felony conviction to go through a bureaucratic process if they want to vote again.
In Mississippi, people with certain felony convictions have to petition the legislature to restore their voting rights individually – and hardly anyone makes it through.
In Florida, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to repeal the state’s lifetime voting ban for most people with felonies. But the Florida legislature quickly stepped in and passed a measure that said completing a sentence meant paying all outstanding fines and court fees, which put voting again out of reach for many. Even if people can afford to pay, it’s extremely difficult to figure out how much they owe since the state has no centralized way of keeping track.
That uncertainty is the point of these laws, said Nicole Porter, the senior director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project.
“I think there is intentionality behind the complications,” she said. “It’s about chilling or minimizing participation in the electorate by certain constituencies. It’s the modern day manifestation of very hard policies that dominated the Jim Crow era.”
This was the tangled web Moses stepped into just after Labor Day in 2019.
Because she didn’t realize she had lost her voting rights, she had been voting regularly until the summer of 2019. When she was informed that her voter registration was about to be canceled, Moses called the elections commission and asked what to do. She said a staffer advised her to go through the restoration process. (The elections commission declined to say to the Guardian whether it had ever advised her to do so.)
The next step Moses took was the one on which her conviction – and its reversal – rested.
One of the people required to fill out the form for her voting rights restoration was a probation officer, who had to confirm that Moses’s criminal sentence had concluded. When Moses showed up at the probation office on 3 September, she met with the manager on duty, named Kristoffer Billington, who had worked for the probation office for five years. He had never filled out the form before, he would later testify in court.
Moses told him her probation was finished, and he went to the back of the office to research her case. Billington called a colleague in a different office for help. They both looked at Moses’s file in the computer system.
According to the information they saw, it looked like Moses had finished her probation in 2018. But there was a problem – Moses’s computer file stillshowed she was on unsupervised probation. Billington thought this was a bureaucratic error and believed someone had forgotten to close out her file.
As he was examining the case, the receptionist repeatedly called Billington’s office to tell him Moses was growing impatient and wanted to turn in the form to the election office, he would later testify. After about an hour of research, he wrote on the form that Moses had completed her probation, signed it and returned it to her.
Billington had made a mistake. Unbeknownst to him, there were more case files that showed Moses’s felony probation wouldn’t expire until the following year, 2020. In parallel, Moses had been fighting in court that summer to have a judge declare that her sentence was over because she wanted to run for mayor. In court filings, she argued that her probation had expired. But courts disagreed. Moses didn’t think those rulings were correct and thought Billington and the probation office would be able to give her a more definitive answer.
It might seem hard to believe that there was a dispute about something as basic as when Moses’s sentence ended. But those kinds of ambiguities are actually quite common, Uggen said.
“People who aren’t subject to supervision don’t really understand how fuzzy things like release and supervision dates are,” he said. “Anybody inside the system or across jurisdictions knows that what’s written on this piece of paper might be very different than that other piece of paper.”
And these bureaucratic mistakes can land people in prison.
Just 30 minutes after Moses left his office, Billington got a call from someone in the Tennessee attorney general’s office telling him he made a mistake on the form. And after Moses turned in the form, the elections office quickly caught the mistake too. A few days earlier, they had referred her to prosecutors for potential voter fraud, owing to the fact they had learned she had been regularly voting while on probation.
“Isn’t whether or not she completed the required probationary period for the 2015 felonies the subject of the [ongoing court case],” Pablo Varela, an attorney for the elections commission, emailed Kirby May, a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office shortly after Moses turned in the form. “How can the Court Clerk issue this attached document stating she has been granted final release from incarceration or supervision?”
May responded later that afternoon and attached a copy of a July court order saying Moses was still on probation. She was still ineligible to vote, he said.
Vicki Collins, a staffer at the elections commission, forwarded Moses’s application to the Tennessee secretary of state’s office to review. “The Shelby County Election Commission has been in an ongoing lawsuit with Ms. Moses. She has been denied the right to be on the ballot for Mayor because she is still on probation until 2020,” wrote Collins, who specialized in helping people with felony convictions get their voting rights back. A little over an hour later, a lawyer with the secretary of state’s office wrote back. She agreed Moses was ineligible to vote, but offered a new reason for why.
In 2015, one of the crimes Moses pled guilty to was tampering with evidence, which causes a permanent loss of voting rights in Tennessee. All of the research Billington had done at the probation office was irrelevant. It didn’t matter whether she was on probation or not.
The next morning, Collins, the elections staffer, appeared happy to learn Moses was permanently barred from voting. “LOOK AT HER STATUS!!! PERMANENTLY INELIGIBLE,” she wrote in an email, including a smiley face.
The same day, the elections office also received a letter from the Tennessee department of corrections alerting them to Billington’s error. The letter didn’t say that Moses was to blame or that Billington was deceived.
The elections office quickly wrote to Moses explaining she was permanently banned. “Absent a change in state law, future attempts to register to vote anywhere in Tennessee may be considered a class D felony,” read the letter from Linda Phillips, the election administrator in Shelby county.
Later that evening, Phillips expressed concern that she hadn’t received a reply from Moses. “I am a bit concerned that Pamela Moses did not respond to my email telling her she would never be able to register to vote.” She hinted at concerns for her own safety over the issue, writing “I do have a concealed carry permit,” in an email to a member of the election commission.
In a response to questions from the Guardian, Phillips said: “If incorrect information is provided to our office, intentionally or unintentionally, the state of Tennessee alerts us about the inaccuracies. That’s what happened in Ms Moses’s case.”
She also defended the emails she and Collins sent after learning Moses was ineligible to vote.
“Any email exchanges within [the elections commission] regarding announcements of Ms Moses’s ineligibility to vote should be perceived as urgent notice to ensure staff awareness, considering Ms Moses’s frequent and sometimes harassing visits to our offices,” she said.”