On election day 2016, Crystal Mason voted after her mother insisted that she be heard in the presidential election. When her name was not on the official voting lists at her polling station in Tarrant County, Texas, she filled out a preliminary ballot without thinking.
Mrs. Mason’s ballot was never officially counted or counted because she was not eligible to vote: She was released under supervision after serving five years in prison for tax fraud. Even so, that vote put her on a lengthy appeals process after a district court sentenced her to five years in prison for casting illegal votes because she was a felon on parole when she voted.
Ms. Mason claims that she did not know that she was not eligible to vote.
“It’s very overwhelming. I wake up every day knowing the prison is on. I’m trying to keep a smile on my face in front of your children and you don’t know the result,” Ms. Mason said in a telephone interview. “Your future is in someone else’s hands because of a simple mistake.”
Her case is now on its way to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest state court for criminal matters, whose judges said Wednesday they had decided to hear it. Ms. Mason retried unsuccessfully and lost her case in an appeals court.
This new appeal marks the last chance for Ms. Mason, 46, who is on appeal, to avoid prison. If her case needs to be referred to the federal judicial system, Ms. Mason would have to appeal from a cell.
Alison Grinter, a lawyer for Ms. Mason, said the federal government had made this clear in the EU Help America Vote Act of 2002 that preliminary ballot papers should not be made a criminal offense because they “constitute an offer to vote – they are not a vote in themselves”.
She said Ms. Mason did not know she was ineligible and was still being sentenced and that Texas electoral law requires a person to knowingly vote illegally in order to be guilty of a crime.
“Crystal never wanted to be a voting rights attorney,” Ms. Grinter said Thursday. “She didn’t want to be political football here. She just wanted to be a mom and a grandmother and get her life right, but she really took it and ran with it and she won’t be intimidated.”
A Tarrant County grand jury has charged Ms. Mason with violating Texas election laws, a Tarrant County prosecutor’s spokeswoman said in a statement.
“Our office offered Mason parole in this case, which she declined,” the statement said. “Mason chose not to be heard by a jury and decided to go to trial before the trial judge.”
In March 2018, Judge Ruben Gonzalez of the 432nd Texas District Court found Ms. Mason guilty of unlawful voting in a second degree crime.
According to Tommy Buser-Clancy, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Ms. Mason should never have been convicted. If a person’s eligibility is inconclusive, the preliminary voting system is responsible, he said.
“This is very scary,” he said of Ms. Mason’s belief, “and it undermines the entire purpose of the interim electoral system.”
If her justification was wrong, he said, “That should be the end of the story.”
The appeals court’s decision could set an important precedent for the future of public interpretation of votes, especially if they are confused, according to Joseph R. Fishkin, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He hoped the court would establish a principle “not to criminalize people for being confused about the complexities of the interaction between criminal law and the electoral law”.
Professor Fishkin said he and many other legal experts believe the state would be in direct conflict with the federal Help America Vote Act if the court upheld Ms. Mason’s conviction.
“It is very important to basic fairness and participation across the country that people have confidence that they will not be charged with crimes if they act in good faith and do not try to pull a quick one,” Professor Fishkin said Thursday. “When this is the case, it is obviously of concern as it prevents many people from voting who may not understand the details of their status or vote.”
In the United States, 5.2 million Americans are unable to vote because of a previous crime conviction the condemnation project, a research organization dedicated to crime and punishment.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said 531 electoral fraud have been prosecuted since 2004. The results of these cases were not immediately available. At least 72 percent of Mr. Paxton’s election fraud cases are reported to have been directed against people of color The Houston Chronicle.
Ms. Mason’s cause was supported by the EU Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Clark Neily, senior vice president of criminal justice at the institute, said the case was an example of excessive criminalization.
“It enables people to commit a crime without knowing that they are breaking a law,” he said.
Celina Stewart, Chief Attorney for the League of Women Voters, who filed supportive letters On her behalf, Ms. Mason said her case sent “a very clear message” that people should be careful with convicted crimes.
“She is being made a role model, and the example is that you don’t want returning citizens voting black, black women,” she said. “It’s a tremendous tale and we have to go back to it because that’s not how democracy works.”