The same month Tarrant County officials announced the creation of an election integrity task force, a group of 14 bipartisan prosecutors threw their weight behind an effort to acquit the woman at the center of a high-profile voting fraud conviction in the county.
Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County resident, was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason, who was on supervised release for a federal felony, was ineligible to vote, and while her ballot was never counted, Tarrant County prosecutors charged her with illegal voting. Mason has maintained that she did not know she was ineligible and her case has gained national attention among the media and civil liberty advocates.
Now, Mason is appealing her conviction for a second time in front of the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, after the state’s highest appeals court told those judges to reconsider their previous decision.
Their decision did not take into account whether Mason knew she was ineligible.
A bipartisan group of former state and federal prosecutors, organized by the States United Democracy Center, filed an amicus brief Feb. 14 in support of Mason’s appeal. Among the signees is Sarah Saldaña, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas and former director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I had this visceral reaction to the injustice manifested in the decision, No. 1, to prosecute, but also the ultimate conviction,” Saldaña said. “It’s obvious that this whole issue of intent was not charged in the jury charge. … That to me was very offensive, particularly as a former prosecutor, and particularly as the principal decision maker in North Texas, at the time when I was U.S. attorney.”
Mason’s intent is a key aspect of the amicus brief’s argument. The signees call her prosecution “outside the bounds of any reasonable exercise of prosecutorial power,” and point to wording in Texas’ illegal voting statute that requires voters have “actual knowledge” that they were committing a crime by voting.
Without enforcing the actual knowledge requirement, the signees argue Texas voters will be afraid to vote at all for fear of accidentally running afoul of voting laws.
“Ms. Mason’s prosecution sends the troubling message that casting a provisional ballot carries a serious risk, with a consequent chilling effect on the use of provisional ballots,” the prosecutors wrote. “This chill would likely disproportionately impact minority voters, who tend to cast more provisional ballots.”
Statewide, efforts by Republican lawmakers to make illegal voting a felony again are gaining steam. It’s currently a misdemeanor, after lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1 in 2021; the bill, among other things, lowered the penalty for illegal voting conduct.
Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, filed House Bill 397 to reverse that change. Sen. Bryan Hughes, who represents East Texas, filed a companion bill in the Senate, which was referred to the state affairs committee for review Feb. 15.
One of the Republican legislative goals for this session is to ensure there is a steady stream of Crystal Masons in the future. Overturning this conviction can’t do anything about that. Oh, and this is what actual voter suppression looks like. There are other ways to do it as well, but when it happens it’s very clear what it is.