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Crystal Mason

House passes its omnibus voter suppression bill

But don’t bother asking what’s in the bill, because it’s going to change and we won’t know what’s in the real bill until it’s time for a final vote in both chambers.

As opposition to Texas Republicans’ proposed voting restrictions continues to intensify, state lawmakers’ deliberations over the GOP priority legislation could soon go behind closed doors.

The House early Friday voted 81-64 to advance a pared down version of Senate Bill 7, leaving out various far-reaching voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates, advocates for people with disabilities, and local officials in the state’s biggest counties. The legislation still contains some provisions opposed by those groups — including a prohibition on counties sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

Facing more than 130 proposed amendments from Democrats late Thursday — and a procedural challenge that could have delayed the entire bill’s consideration — lawmakers huddled off the chamber’s floor throughout the night to cut a deal and rework SB 7 through a flurry of amendments passed without objection from either party.

But the final contours of the bill remain uncertain.

The bill will need a second House vote, expected later Friday, before it can head back to the Senate. It will then likely go to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers who will be able to pull from both iterations of the legislation in crafting the final version largely outside public view.

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

Those and other provisions fell off when it was reconstituted in the House Elections Committee, with little notice and without a public hearing, to match the House’s priorities contained in House Bill 6.

Republicans amended the bill in the early hours of Friday to nix a provision that would’ve required people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help — even if for medical reasons. That measure raised concerns among advocates for people with disabilities that it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers also amended the bill to slim down provisions that broadly enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and provisions that boosted penalties for voting related offenses.

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

Under the deal House members cut to keep the bill on the floor, Democrats were able to tack on several amendments to the legislation. Most notably, they added language to the legislation in response to the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction at the time and said she didn’t know that made her ineligible to vote. SB 7 was amended early Friday to require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting and require that people know why they are ineligible for an attempt to vote to count as a crime.

See here for the most recent update. The Chron had a story over the weekend that went into detail about the two bills (before HB6 was rewritten in committee) and how much of them was an effort to punish Harris County for its “sins” in 2020. That’s mostly useful now as a reminder for when the conference committee version emerges. I have little hope that the Democratic amendments will make it into that version, but at least they tried. The one thing we can be sure about is that much like with Florida, there will be lawsuits over this. And we damn well better make it an issue in the 2022 election. Reform Austin has more.

The Big Lie

I was glad to see the Chron run a week-long series of editorials on The Big Lie of “voter fraud”, and how the Republican Party has been pushing it for a lot longer than 2020, and how it has been used to justify all kinds of draconian restrictions on voting. Here’s how they started it off last Monday.

So, if voter fraud is the scourge of our democracy, if it’s capable of stealing a presidential election, as some claim, if it’s widespread enough to qualify for “emergency” status in the state Legislature to ratchet up voting restrictions, then surely, the proof of its magnitude lies in Texas.

Indeed it does. After 15 years of looking for election fraud among the 94 million votes cast in Texas elections since 2005, the Texas Attorney General’s office has dutifully prosecuted all of 155 people. Add to that 19 cases cataloged by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which include federal and county prosecutions, and you get a grand total of 174.

That’s not a typo. It’s not 174,000 or 17,400 or even 1,740.

It’s 174 little ol’ Texas souls.

Together, they represent .000185 percent of the total votes cast — or 1 in 540,000 voters. Statistically, voters are more likely to get struck by lightning than to be prosecuted for voter fraud.

And yet, 174 isn’t nothing. If even one of these individuals perpetrated wide-scale fraud that robbed other Texans of their electoral voice or stole a major election or even resulted in a hefty prison sentence, that might provide a whiff of excuse for the zealous pursuit of fraudulent voters.

Alas, most crimes were so minor that only 33 of the 174 perpetrators went to jail, most for less than a year. An analysis of media accounts and the attorney general’s prosecution records obtained by this editorial board through the Texas Public Information Act shows that most cases ended with plea agreements — pre-trial diversion deals or probation. Of the 33 people who were sentenced to any jail time, none were the criminal masterminds conjured up to instill fear in the hearts of freedom-loving Americans.

We’re all familiar with the numbers, if not these specific numbers. However you look at it, the total number of incidents – which by the way tend to be wildly exaggerated by the likes of Ken Paxton – is ridiculously small. As I’ve said, for going on twenty years now we’ve had the most fanatical vote fraud hunters on the planet operating in our state government, and all they’ve ever been able to find is the weakest of sauces, yet they continue to insist that fraud continues unabated and undetected. I don’t know, maybe the real problem here is that these guys truly suck at their jobs, and that if we had more competent and honest people in those positions we’d be able to have a greater sense of security in our elections. Just a thought.

Anyway. The subsequent editorials in the series:

The Big Lie – Is Crystal Mason proof of Texas election fraud – or of a political ploy? I think we know the answer to that one.

The Big Lie – Texas has been crying ‘election fraud’ since it blocked ex-slaves from voting. However far back you think this goes, you’re underestimating it.

The Big Lie – For 20 years, GOP has groomed their voters to believe in fraud. The big change in recent years has been the attack on the voting process itself, and with proposed legislation in Georgia and Arizona and elsewhere the ability for a partisan body to explicitly overrule local and state election officials who count and verify the results. If a state legislature can say basically “we don’t care who the voters elected, we’re going to declare the candidate we like the winner”, that doesn’t say much for our democracy.

The Big Lie – What happens when a GOP state tells the truth about voter fraud? Ask Kentucky. Good luck finding a current Republican elected official who’s willing to tell the truth, in public, about this.

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

You’d think with all that voter fraud out there, they could actually find some

So much effort, so little to show for it.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s office this year almost doubled the amount of time it spent looking into and working on voter fraud cases in 2018 — more than 22,000 staff hours — yet resolved just 16 prosecutions, half as many as in 2018, records show.

All 16 cases involved Harris County residents who gave false addresses on their voter registration forms. None of them received any jail time.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has made the hunt for voter fraud a top priority of his office, between January and October gave the election integrity unit access to eight additional law enforcement sergeants on top of the nine already assigned to it, and doubled the number of prosecutors to four, according to records obtained from the agency by nonprofit government watchdog American Oversight and shared with Hearst Newspapers.

In its 15 years of its existence, the unit has prosecuted a few dozen cases in which offenders received jail time, none of them involving widespread fraud.

[…]

The low number of prosecutions resolved this year in contrast with the hours worked shines light on a core disagreement between Paxton and voting rights advocates: Is the low prosecution rate a cause or effect? Does it signify that few cases exist or that more resources are needed to find the cases presumed to be lurking undetected?

Paxton did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but in a taped interview with the conservative-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation in September, he explained why he believes the number of cases does not represent the scope of the issue.

“It just takes a lot of effort to take it through the entire process. So you’re never going to see thousands of cases coming out of an office that has three prosecutors, and we probably have more than most states,” Paxton said. “It’s limited to what we can do, but we try to send the message with what we do and the fact that we’re investigating well over 100 cases right now, that we take this seriously, and we’re going to do our best. You may be the unfortunate one we catch.”

University of Texas election law professor Joseph Fishkin said there could be another explanation.

“This is not the only voter fraud effort to pour in a lot of resources and end up with a relatively small number of cases found,” Fishkin said, referring to the Trump Administration’s voting integrity commission, which disbanded in 2018 after finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud. “Finding very few defendants, even if they can charge some with multiple offenses, is consistent with the possibility that there just isn’t that much fraud to prosecute.”

It’s also possible that Paxton, like Greg Abbott before him, is just really incompetent at his job, which in this case would provide counter-evidence to the belief that it takes a crook to catch a crook.

Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, said investing in a program that has not uncovered widespread fraud speaks to Paxton’s priorities.

“How many resources are they going to spend to try to put political wins on the board?” Pérez said. “No one is saying that there’s never mistakes or that fraud never happens. People are saying it’s extraordinarily rare; study after study demonstrates that that’s the case.”

Pérez added that the attorney general’s office tends to try to make examples out of voters who made mistakes and isn’t finding the organized election fraud that Paxton claims to be guarding against.

For example, Crystal Mason is a 45-year-old Fort Worth woman who was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election — one that was never counted — while on supervised release for a federal conviction. She has said she did not know she was ineligible to vote. At the end of November, her lawyers filed a petition to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to review her case and acquit her of the illegal voting charge.

“Crystal Mason got more time than that ‘affluenza’ kid,” she said, referring to a Texas man who got no jail time after claiming in court that his wealthy upbringing clouded his sense of right and wrong during his trial for killing four people while driving drunk. “It’s really hard to say who you’re protecting people from.”

He’s trying to protect Republicans from the scourge of Democratic voting. That much is clear.

Look, in a sense this is all just hunting for Bigfoot. The fact that we’ve spent all this time and money trying to find Bigfoot without ever finding any evidence of Bigfoot doesn’t mean that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, it just means we’re not looking hard enough. Alternately, one can claim that all this time and money being spent on Bigfoot hunting is the only thing that’s keeping us safe from rampaging Bigfoot massacres, because if we weren’t out there so publicly hunting for Bigfoot, then Bigfoot would get all emboldened and run amok in the community. And we wouldn’t want to send the message that we’re soft on Bigfoot, now would we?

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.

This is not how you secure elections

This is atrocious.

If she had known it was illegal, Crystal Mason said she would have never cast a vote in the 2016 presidential election.

The 43-year-old former tax preparer hadn’t even planned on voting until her mother encouraged her to do it. She had only recently been released from federal prison for a 2012 tax fraud conviction, in which she pleaded guilty to inflating returns for her clients, her attorney, J. Warren St. John, told The Washington Post.

She was still on community supervision at the time of the election — but no one, including her probation officer, St. John said, ever told her that being a felon on supervision meant she couldn’t vote under Texas law.

Now, she’s going back to prison for casting a ballot illegally — for five years.

Mason was indicted on a charge of illegal voting in Tarrant County, Tex., last year and found guilty by State District Judge Ruben Gonzalez on Thursday, despite her protestations that she simply was not aware that she was barred from casting a ballot and never would have done it had she known.

As she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time she was indicted: “You think I would jeopardize my freedom? You honestly think I would ever want to leave my babies again? That was the hardest thing in my life to deal with. Who would — as a mother, as a provider — leave their kids over voting?”

Both the Trib story and the Star-Telegram story contain tough-guy quotes from Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, beating their chests about fighting vote fraud. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also a travesty. How does putting this woman in jail for FIVE YEARS serve justice in any way? If we treated white-collar crime with this kind of ferocity, no one would ever get scammed again. For that matter, if we took election security this seriously, no one would ever worry about Russians or hackers again. We sure have some screwed-up priorities.