Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Appealing the Crystal Mason illegal voting conviction

This continues to be an appalling travesty.

When Crystal Mason got out of federal prison, she said, she “got out running.”

By Nov. 8, 2016, when she’d been out for months but was still on supervised release, she was working full-time at Santander Bank in downtown Dallas and enrolled in night classes at Ogle Beauty School, trying, she said, to show her children that a “bump in the road doesn’t determine your future.”

On Election Day, there was yet another thing to do: After work, she drove through the rain to her polling place in the southern end of Tarrant County, expecting to vote for the first female president.

When she got there, she was surprised to learn that her name wasn’t on the roll. On the advice of a poll worker, she cast a provisional ballot instead. She didn’t make it to her night class.

A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law preventing felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.

For “illegally voting,” she was sentenced to five years in prison. Now, as her lawyers attempt to persuade a Fort Worth appeals court to overturn that sentence, the question is whether she voted at all.

Created in 2002, provisional ballots were intended to serve as an electoral safe harbor, allowing a person to record her vote even amid questions about her eligibility. In 2016, more than 66,000 provisional ballots were cast in Texas, and the vast majority of those were rejected, most of them because they were cast by individuals who weren’t registered to vote, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast that year, and 3,990 were rejected — but she was the only one who faced criminal prosecution.

In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last Tuesday, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.

Her case, now pending before an all-Republican appeals panel, is about not just her freedom, but about the role and risks of the provisional ballot itself.

Prosecutors insist that they are not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake. Despite those assurances, voting rights advocates fear the case could foster enough doubt among low-information voters that they’ll be discouraged from heading to the polls — or even clear a path for prosecutors to criminally pursue other provisional ballot-casters.

“There are a lot of people who have questions about whether they can vote or where they can vote,” said Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “You want all of those people to feel comfortable going in and submitting a provisional ballot.”

[…]

Tarrant County prosecutors have brushed off concerns the Mason case could lead to voter suppression. “The fact that this case is so unique should emphasize why this case should in no way have a ‘chilling effect’ on anyone except people who knowingly vote illegally,” Jordan said.

But during the 2019 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers pushed to erase Mason’s legal defense for future defendants by making it easier to prosecute people who cast ballots without realizing they’re ineligible.

Currently, to commit a crime, voters must know they are ineligible; under the proposed law, they would commit a crime just by voting while knowing about the circumstances that made them ineligible. In other words, Mason would have been illegally voting because she was aware of her past felony conviction — even if she was not aware her “supervised release” status made her ineligible.

The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot wasn’t actually counted would have also been ruled out as a legal defense under the proposed changes to state law. That legislation ultimately failed in the House amid major opposition from Democrats.

See here for some background. The appellate hearing was last week, and it drew national coverage. There are three legal justifications given by the ACLU on behalf of Crystal Mason why her attempt to vote was not illegal, but even if you think those arguments are insufficient, there’s still no possible justice in a five year prison sentence for this. I mean, there’s plenty of other crimes that are punished far, far less. This is about scaring certain people so they don’t feel confident about voting. This is why reversing the tide of voter suppression laws has to be a priority for the next Democratic Legislature. Further reading about the case from the ACLU is here and here, and the Observer has more.

Related Posts:

6 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    Voter suppression? She’s a felon who hadn’t finished serving her sentence. That’s the EXACT group we want to suppress from voting. Pay your debt to society, THEN we’ll talk. Kuff, I do agree with you about part of your assessment: I think five years is TOO MUCH time, but she should do 3-6 months or so, and her case should be a cautionary tale to other felons out on parole.

    Now, once a convicted felon has finished serving their entire sentence and has finished with whatever restitution was required, I think they should have their right to vote restored. Punishment has to eventually be over.

  2. becky earle says:

    I disagree Bill; any time as punishment is just plain stupid. The woman clearly didn’t know that she shouldn’t have even used the provisional ballot. Apparently there is a gap of critical information that did not get relayed to her upon here probation. She should not have to pay the price for that.

    I think we should make things clearer for people coming out of prison/jail and provide help with getting their lives (including how to register to vote again) back on track.

  3. Gary D says:

    Re: Bill Danials. Now and then you suspect someone may be an ahole and then he posts a comment that removes all doubt.
    She did not know she was not eligible to vote. She did not cast a vote as is commonly understood but cast a ballot that would only count if officials determined she was eligible. She got 5 years in prison in this huge miscarriage of justice as a means of suppressing the vote of people who were ever in prison or are unclear if they are eligible to vote.

  4. Brad says:

    I would like to know what Moscow Mitch has to say about this because if there is anybody who cares about election integrity it’s the Republicans

  5. Manny says:

    This are Republicans trying to intimidate people of color from voting as the ACLU argues, I am a card carrying ACLU member;

    In Mason’s case, Tarrant County administrators determined that her federal supervised-release status made her ineligible to vote. They did not count her provisional ballot.

    “That should have been the end of the story for Crystal,” Buser-Clancy told The Washington Post on Wednesday. Instead, he said, the state misapplied the illegal-voting statute to prosecute her.

    Prosecutions like Mason’s are extremely rare; the ACLU is not aware of another Texas case of a person being prosecuted based on a rejected provisional ballot.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2019/09/11/texas-court-weighs-whether-year-sentence-illegal-voting-is-legitimate-or-threat-democracy/

  6. Mainstream says:

    I recall being trained as an election judge that we must offer any rejected voter the opportunity to vote provisionally, and I recall one instance in which a young student living in Waco insisted on casting a provisional ballot in Houston. I wonder if doing so subjected him to a risk of felony prosecution? I can recall scores of others who knew they were at the wrong precinct, who insisted on trying provisionally, since they could not or would not drive across town to their proper voting site.