Elections

Convicted felon indicted on illegal voting charge in Tarrant County

Crystal Mason says a poll worker assisted her with voting.
Crystal Mason says a poll worker assisted her with voting. Star-Telegram archives

A 41-year-old Rendon woman indicted on a charge of illegally voting in the 2016 presidential election said she was never told that she couldn’t cast a ballot while still on supervised release from prison.

Crystal Mason is accused of voting Nov. 8, 2016, despite still being on supervised release for a conviction of conspiracy to defraud the government in 2012, for which she was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Mason said she wasn’t told when released from federal prison, or by her supervision officer, that she could not vote in the election as long as she was still on supervised release.

“They tell you certain things like you can’t be around a felon, you can’t have a gun. No one actually said, ‘Hey, you can’t vote this year,’ ” Mason said.

“You think I would jeopardize my freedom?” Mason said. “...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?”

Voting illegally is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Mason said she believes she is being targeted for prosecution because she voted for Hillary Clinton and her indictment comes at a time when voter fraud continues to draw national attention. Most recently, a woman was sentenced to eight years in prison by a Tarrant County jury for voting illegally.

It’s “very likely the government is sending a stern message about illegal voting,” said Allan Saxe, an associate government professor at the University of Texas in Arlington. “There are varying messages and arguing points about this issue.

“I believe it has been difficult to disprove illegal voting, but it has been made an issue.”

Previous conviction

Mason, then known as Crystal Mason-Hobbs, pleaded guilty in federal court in 2011 to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States.

According to court records, while owning and operating a tax preparation business in Everman, Mason and her then-husband, Sanford Taylor Hobbs III, inflated tax refunds claimed on behalf of clients.

She was sentenced in March 2012 by U.S. District Judge John McBryde to five years in federal prison and three years of supervised release. She also was required to pay more than $4.2 million in restitution. Her husband, from whom she is now divorced, also pleaded guilty in the case and received a similar sentence.

Mason said that since her release from prison, she has obtained a good job — one she now fears she will lose. She said she is about to finish beauty school and helps raise numerous children, including two grandchildren and a relative’s children, at her home.

Mason said she had gone to vote at her mother’s encouragement and brought her driver’s license with her as identification.

When poll workers could not find her name on their list of registered voters, Mason said she was encouraged to fill out a provisional ballot and was even walked through the process by a worker.

She acknowledges that she only skimmed through the form but doesn’t recall it saying anything about people on supervised release being prohibited from voting. She said she was informed by one of the workers that if she was voting in the correct place, her vote would count.

Mason said she later received a letter stating that her vote did not count, but it did not explain why.

A complaint came in to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office from an election worker where Mason voted, said Harry E. White, an assistant criminal district attorney.

The worker wondered if anything was wrong with the ballot, which prompted investigators to look into the case.

Even though the vote wasn’t counted, White said the ballot was cast and Mason did sign the form that indicated she was a U.S. citizen, not a felon and wasn’t on parole or community supervision.

Mason said she thought nothing more of her vote until she was called in for an unexpected meeting with her supervision officer Feb. 16. She was leaving that meeting when she was met by Tarrant County Sheriff’s deputies and arrested on an illegal-voting warrant.

When told what the warrant was for, Mason insisted that she had voted under her legal name and correct address — assuming that was the issue.

“She was like, ‘You’re not supposed to vote while you’re on probation,’ ” Mason said. “I’m like, ‘No one told me this.’ ”

Mason was released from jail the next day after posting a $10,000 bond.

“I can’t even explain my feelings right now,” Mason said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I don’t think I’ll ever vote again. That’s being honest. I’ll never vote again.”

Eligible to vote?

Mason’s case first came to the attention of Tarrant County election officials when the district attorney’s office requested election documents, said Stephen Vickers, chief deputy elections administrator in Tarrant County.

The office recently sent over the requested information. Vickers declined to comment on the case because of the ongoing investigation.

In order to register to vote in Texas, a person can’t be a convicted felon unless the sentence has been completed, including parole or probation.

In order to register to vote in Texas, a person must be a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old by Election Day, can’t be a convicted felon (unless the sentence has been completed, including parole or probation) and can’t have been or be declared mentally incapacitated by a court.

Once a felon has successfully completed his or her punishment — “including any terms of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or has been pardoned” — then he or she becomes “immediately eligible” to register to vote, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Mason said she believes officials need to educate people placed on parole or probation on the voting laws.

“It’s not fair for the ones that get out and rehabilitate themselves and come back into society to allow something like this to bring them back,” she said. “The next four years, they need to make sure they have something implemented for the people getting out, letting them know the dos and dont’s in voting. Let my story be a lesson.”

Political issue

Voter fraud has been a big political issue in Texas, where high-ranking Republicans have said it’s a real problem.

“It must be stopped,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said during a recent Fox News interview. “We need every tool to go after it.”

Most recently, the case of Rosa Maria Ortega, a 37-year-old Grand Prairie mother of four who has a green card, drew national attention. Convicted of voting illegally, she received a sentence of eight years in prison for voting in the 2012 general election and the 2014 Republican primary runoff.

Her sentence for the second-degree felony, and expected deportation after it’s been served, drew reaction from some who questioned whether the sentence was too harsh.

At least one other case of voter fraud is under investigation in Tarrant County.

The separate investigation focuses on mail-in ballots, which allow people to vote from their homes without any ID or verification of identity. At issue is how often people assist others, or physically help by witnessing, with filling out applications for mail-in ballots or the ballots themselves.

Local officials said workers with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office were in Tarrant County last year gathering paperwork and interviewing potential witnesses. The attorney general’s office has declined to “confirm or deny investigations” or comment on the situation.

After the Ortega ruling, Abbott tweeted out a message — and a warning to Texans.

“In Texas, you will pay a price for voter fraud,” he posted on Twitter.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd

In a jailhouse interview with the Star-Telegram, Rosa Ortega said she has lost custody of her children and will likely be deported when her eight-year sentence is up.

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