The Tennessee Lookout [By Kathy Carlson] –
Ten people have been indicted, arrested and are being prosecuted in Clarksville on charges of voter fraud.
The charges allege the people knew they weren’t entitled to vote or to register to vote because of a past felony conviction, but did so anyway. That’s also a felony, and if convicted, they could be sentenced to two to 12 years in prison, fined, and never be able to regain the right to vote.
Frank Mondelli Jr., an attorney representing one of those accused of voter registration fraud, said the charges “completely blindsided” his client, who isn’t politically active, is employed and, he says, “doesn’t even remember attempting to register” after recently moving to Clarksville. Being charged has caused the client “extreme embarrassment and distress.” His client never voted.
The Montgomery County District Attorney and the county’s administrator of elections have said generally that prosecutions of this type have occurred in the past as part of a continuing effort to maintain accurate voter rolls.
The current cases were brought before a Montgomery County grand jury in August, and defendants were indicted that month. Arrest warrants went out in August, defendants were arrested and cases went to court in September. Bond was initially set at $2,500.
According to court documents, three defendants are white, six are black and the race of one person isn’t given. All had previous felony convictions dating from 1989 to 2011, with about half occurring after 2000 and half before 2000. According to the indictments, five defendants are accused of unlawfully voting in an election; one person is accused of voting in two elections. A sixth person is accused of unlawfully voting or attempting to vote. The others are charged with unlawfully registering or attempting to register to vote.
It’s unclear how many people remain to be arrested on voting-related indictments that may have been issued by the August grand jury. The prosecutions come at a time when Tennessee’s rules for how persons with felony records may regain the right to vote have come under scrutiny.
In June, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a person pardoned for a felony in another state had to also show he had paid all required fees under a separate Tennessee law in order to regain the right to vote here.
Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins cited that case in a July memo to local election officials requiring all people with felony convictions to pay all required fees and also obtain a pardon or judicial restoration of voting rights before they could regain the right to vote. All the while, a lawsuit on how Tennesseans with felony records could regain voting rights has been proceeding in federal court in Nashville.
The case of the voters in Montgomery County began before the June Supreme Court ruling.
When first contacted in October for this article, Montgomery County District Attorney Robert Nash said that roughly every two years, the local election commission notifies his office of people who may have violated state law on unlawful voting or registering. His office reviews the names on the list to determine whether they meet the statute’s requirements for a violation.
“If they do, I am kind of obligated to bring charges,” he said. Nash, a prosecuting attorney in Montgomery County prior to his appointment to DA in 2021 by Gov. Bill Lee, says similar cases have been brought in the past, although he couldn’t say how many.
Montgomery County Administrator of Elections Elizabeth Black said updating voter lists goes on every day. Every two years, in years with no federal elections, the state election coordinator sends county election administrators lists of people who have been convicted of felonies and who are listed on voting rolls. Her office then sends a letter telling those on the list that they are no longer registered voters in Montgomery County because of a felony conviction.
“If this information is incorrect, you will need to provide proof to our office,” the letter says. “If your voting rights have been restored, our office will need a copy of the restoration.” The letter, dated and sent on May 16, also includes information on how to have voting rights restored.
Mondelli said this week that his client received a letter from the Montgomery election commission, saying “you are no longer registered to vote” in that county. But, he said, the client, as best they could remember, had never been registered there or anywhere else. The client has never voted, he said.
Voter registration fraud is a “very serious charge (that) can’t be taken lightly” and election integrity needs to be protected, Mondelli said. But he said he’s concerned that applying voter fraud law in situations like his client’s will “further disenfranchise some individuals.” Under Tennessee law, people convicted of voter registration fraud can never again vote and can never have their right to vote restored.
Black said that two people reported they received the letter in error, and the mistake was corrected by taking the names off the list. She said her office sent a total of 47 names to the Montgomery County district attorney’s office for review and possible prosecution. She said the DA’s office prosecuted 27 people; Nash hadn’t returned calls and emails seeking clarification on the numbers by publication time.
“Our guidance to county election officials is if a person makes false statements on a voter registration form, that person should be turned in to the District Attorney (DA) to determine if a prosecutable crime has been committed,” Julia Bruck, director of communications for the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, said in an email response to questions. “County election commissions may notify the DA of any evidence of false statements independently of our office.”
“ Our office may also refer cases to the DA. Ultimately, it is up to the DA to decide if a crime has been committed and whether to prosecute.”
She said the Secretary of State’s office did not “have a count of how many fraudulent registering to vote cases have been prosecuted, but there have been others.”
According to the 2022 update to the 2020 U.S. Census, an estimated 235,201 people live in Montgomery County. It’s Tennessee’s 7th most populous county, World Population Report says.
Nearly 140,000 people are registered to vote in Montgomery County, according to the most recent report on voter registration from the secretary of state’s office for the six months that ended on Dec. 1, 2022.