Crime

Woman appeals illegal voting sentence; lawyers blame conviction on political motives 

The legal team for a Texas woman sentenced to five years in prison for illegal voting in Tarrant County argued her conviction should be overturned at an appeal hearing Tuesday.

Crystal Mason, 44, was arrested for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election while on federally supervised release. She was sentenced in March 2018 and is appealing the conviction.

The ballot that Mason cast was not counted, and Mason said no one told her she was not allowed to vote while on supervised release from a 2011 fraud conviction.

“There is no way I would do anything to jeopardize my kids,” Mason, who is from Rendon, said outside the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center on Tuesday. “I would not have went to vote if I knew I could not vote.”

Mason said she has tried to rebuild her life despite her past by going to school and working hard. She is raising her three biological children and supporting four of her brother’s children and three grandchildren.

Mason’s legal team has argued that her case is an example of voter suppression in Texas and in the U.S. The team consists of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the ACLU Voting Rights Project, the Texas Civil Rights Project and Mason’s personal attorneys, Kim Cole and Alison Grinter.

Those groups say Texas convicted Mason to make an example of her and intimidate other minorities into not voting.

“It’s a window into how the myth of voter fraud is weaponized to keep voters of color shut out from our democracy,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, a staff attorney with ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, at a press conference after the hearing. “She’s being used as a pawn in this ongoing assault on voter rights in this country.”

During the hearing, Assistant Criminal District Attorney Helena Faulkner argued the state’s case against Mason, and ACLU staff attorney Thomas Buser-Clancy presented arguments against Mason’s conviction. Three justices of Texas’ Second Court of Appeals heard the arguments — J. Wade Birdwell, Elizabeth Kerr and Dabney Bassel.

Buser-Clancy argued Mason did not commit voter fraud because her provisional ballot was not actually cast and she did not know she could not vote while on supervised release.

Provisional ballots are used when a voter’s eligibility is questioned — the ballot is later reviewed for legitimacy and only counted if the voter was eligible. Such was the case for Mason, Buser-Clancy said. He argued Mason had no ill intentions when she cast her provisional ballot, and it does not make sense to punish someone for casting a ballot that was not counted. In 2016, for example, 40,000 people in Texas cast provisional ballots that were rejected, Buser-Clancy said.

Faulkner argued Mason cast the ballot while knowing she could not. Mason’s provisional ballot included a written section explaining a person cannot vote if he or she is on supervised release, and Mason voted anyway, she said.

The justices will review Mason’s appeal and make a determination. There is no set time frame in which they will make a decision.

At the time that she voted, Mason was on federally supervised release after being convicted of tax fraud in 2011. She was released early after three years. Shortly after casting her provisional ballot in 2016, she was arrested.

In August 2018, a judge determined the illegal voting conviction, even while being appealed, violated the terms of Mason’s parole. She was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison, and returned back home in June.

Legal arguments

During the hearing, the justices asked both Buser-Clancy and Faulkner questions about the case. Birdwell asked about the difference in attempting to vote and actually voting, and Kerr questioned whether there was evidence Mason had read the entire provisional ballot or not.

Faulkner argued there is no legal difference between trying to vote and the vote being cast, while Buser-Clancy disagreed. Faulkner also said an election judge at the voting station directed Mason to read the ballot, but could not say whether she had done so or not.

After the hearing, Mason and her legal team held a press conference outside the justice building.

“Today in the court room, you heard Tommy Buser-Clancy make compelling arguments to this court that asked good questions. And you heard the state not give good answers,” said Beth Stevens, Voting Rights Program director with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Steven also said Mason’s five-year sentence is meant to discourage others from voting and is part of an “insidious political agenda.”

“These are efforts that are meant to strike fear in the hearts of other people who want to cast their vote,” she said.

Texas is also pursuing prosecutions against four women accused of involvement in a Tarrant County voter fraud ring.

Records from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office show an increase in voting irregularity cases. From 2005 and 2015, the Attorney General’s Office prosecuted or investigated 117 cases — an average of 11.7 cases a year. But between 2016 and 2018, the office pursued an average of six more cases per year. In that time frame, 35 cases were investigated or prosecuted — an average of 17.5 cases a year, records from Paxton’s office show.

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Kaley Johnson is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. She majored in investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for bringing readers in-depth, complex stories that will impact their lives. Send your tips via email or Twitter.
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