Home > Uncategorized > When voting became a crime: the unjust punishment of Crystal Mason – posted 3/29/2020

When voting became a crime: the unjust punishment of Crystal Mason – posted 3/29/2020

With so much non-stop coverage of coronavirus, it is not surprising that other important stories escape notice. The story of Crystal Mason is such a story.

Mason is a 44 year old African-American woman who lives outside Fort Worth, Texas in Rendon which is part of Tarrant County. In 2018, Texas prosecuted and convicted Mason of illegal voting while she was on supervised release from a federal felony conviction. The Texas state court sentenced her to a five year jail term. The case is now under appeal.

To appreciate the significance of Mason’s case, it has to be seen in the context of Texas’s aggressive assault on voting rights. Mason is the poster child for voter suppression. Texas is sending message to people of color: this is what happens to you, if you vote. Be afraid, we will put you away.

Much has been written about how Texas is in transition from red to blue due to demographic change. Voter suppression is a central intentional part of Republican strategy to fight the adverse demographics. In 2011, GOP lawmakers passed the strictest voter ID requirements in the country.

The 2011 law was initially blocked and an ongoing legal battle ensued. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided Shelby County v Holder, they gave Texas the green light to go ahead with their voter ID law. States like Texas, with a history of discrimination, had previously had to clear voting changes with the federal government. That went away with the Shelby County decision although legal fights continue.

Mason had pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government back in 2011. She had prepared income tax returns that contained false information to bump up returns for her clients. Even though she cooperated with prosecutors, she received the maximum five year sentence with an additional three years of supervised release and she was ordered to pay $4.2 million in restitution.

Texas prohibits convicted felons from voting while they serve their sentence. Mason was on what is called “federal supervised release”, a set of reentry requirements for ex-felons coming out of a federal prison. If you are on parole, probation, or what is called “supervision”, Texas does not allow voting.

During the time Mason was in prison in 2013, Tarrant County election officials sent a letter to her home informing her that her voter registration was cancelled. Thirty days later, they sent a second letter. Mason never received the letters because at the time she was in prison.

Mason received an early release from prison in 2016 for good behavior. At the urging of her mother, she decided to vote in the 2016 presidential election. She said no one informed her that being in federal supervised release made her ineligible to vote.

Mason’s lawyers are arguing that individuals under federal supervised release have completed the entire term of their incarceration. They are in a different legal category than those on parole, probation or community supervision.

Mason’s case may turn on how the court interprets the terms “supervision” and “federal supervised release”. She maintains that she did not know her voting rights were suspended until after she completed her federal supervised release.

When Mason went to vote a 16 year old poll worker who knew her could not find her name on the rolls but he offered her a chance to vote with a provisional ballot. Mason filled out the affidavit and submitted it. Ultimately, election officials rejected Mason’s ballot because they classified her as ineligible. Considering that Mason’s vote was not counted, the question pops up: did she vote? Her vote added to no tally.

There is a factual dispute about whether Mason read the fine print affidavit before she signed it. Also the 16 year old poll worker testified he knew Mason was ineligible but offered her a ballot anyway. He said he forgot her status as an ex-felon.

Before passing judgment on Mason, it is important to know that provisional ballots are a federally required safeguard for people who show up at the polls and are unsure of their registration status. There are many reasons why a voter might vote provisionally. For example, the voter might have gone to the wrong voting station, the voter’s eligibility could not be established or the voter lacked a photo ID (and that is required in that jurisdiction).

Provisional ballots go back to the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. That law, in part, was about allowing voters to cast a provisional ballot if the voter stated that she was entitled to vote. It was created in the aftermath of the Bush v Gore debacle in 2000 when almost two million votes were disqualified.

Mason believed she was eligible to vote but she also knew that by casting a provisional ballot the state might disagree. As noted, her vote was not ultimately counted. It is not her fault that the law is muddled. As she has said,

“Why would I vote if I knew I was not eligible? What’s my intent? What was I to gain but losing my kids, losing my mom, potentially losing my house? I would have so much to lose, all for casting a vote.”

In Tarrant County where Mason lives, 4500 people cast provisional ballots in the 2016 election. 3990 of those ballots were rejected by election officials. Mason was the only voter prosecuted. Why she is being singled out and punished so severely defies any sense of fairness.

After Mason’s trial in 2018, she was incarcerated again because the state law conviction for illegal voting was a violation of the terms of her federal release. She remained in jail from September 2018 to May 2019 when she was released. On March 19, a Texas appeals court upheld Mason’s five year prison sentence.

Mason’s lawyers will ask the full appeal court to rehear the case. If that fails, she could then appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest criminal curt in Texas and if she loses, she could potentially appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Only a GoFundMe page and help from her pastor saved Mason from losing her home to foreclosure when she was returned to prison in 2018. A family of twelve including her three children, four of her brother’s children, two grandchildren and three grandnieces live with Mason and have depended on her.

In the most recent March 2020 court decision upholding her five year jail term, Mason faced a panel of elected judges who are all Republicans. Mason is collateral damage in the partisan war.

The deeper problem with our voting system is not voter fraud, it is how few people vote. 900,000 people live in Fort Worth and it is the fifteenth largest city in the country and it has some of the lowest percentage of people voting in America. In 2014, voter turnout was 28.5%. In its most recent mayoralty race, turnout was 6%.

In 2018, Mason’s daughter, Taylor, got a job canvassing for Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign. She told potential voters about her mother’s experience but when it came time to vote, Taylor was a no-show voter. After what happened to her mother, she was too scared to vote.

This year with the election and the coronavirus challenge, much thought must go into what steps can be taken to maximize turnout. Democracy depends on people voting. I fear that the Republican strategy this year will be about how voter turnout can be minimized.

Crystal Mason’s story disgraces Texas and exposes that state’s voter suppression effort for all to see. Let’s hope the courts throw out her absurd and unjust conviction.

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