A Black Texas Mother Is Facing Over Five Years in Prison for Voting in 2016

We look at the shocking case of a Texas woman sentenced to five years in prison for illegally voting, who could now have even more time added to her sentence. Crystal Mason cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election despite having a past felony conviction for tax fraud that prevented her from voting. In March, she was convicted of illegal voting; she says she did not know that she was barred from casting a ballot in Texas due to her criminal record. Her supporters argue her conviction was racially biased, and point to the case of Terri Lynn Rote, a white woman in Iowa who was convicted of the same crime after she tried to vote for President Trump—twice. Rote was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $750. Crystal Mason joins us along with her attorney, Kim Cole. Mason has a federal court hearing in Fort Worth, Texas, tomorrow, and if she loses the hearing, she will be heading to prison. We also speak with Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, about how policies restricting the voting rights of convicted felons disenfranchise more than 6 million people.

Transcript

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with the shocking case of a Texas woman sentenced to five years in prison for illegally voting, who could now have even more time added to her sentence. Crystal Mason cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 presidential election despite having a past felony conviction for tax fraud that prevented her from voting. In March, she was convicted of illegal voting, but says she did not know that she was barred from casting a ballot in Texas because of her criminal record. Her supporters argue her conviction was racially biased, and point to the case of Terri Lynn Rote, a white woman in Iowa who was convicted of the same crime after she tried to vote for President Trump—twice. Rote was sentenced to two years’ probation and was fined $750.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Fort Worth, Texas, where Crystal Mason joins us along with her attorney Kim Cole. Crystal has a federal court hearing in Fort Worth, Texas, on Thursday—that’s tomorrow. If she loses the hearing, she’ll be heading to prison. Also with us in Washington, Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, author of Race to Incarcerate and co-editor of Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment. According to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, policies restricting the voting rights of convicted felons disenfranchise more than 6 million people.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Crystal, let’s begin with you. You go to court tomorrow. Explain what happened on Election Day—what you understood, what you did—and now what you’re facing.

CRYSTAL MASON: OK. I went to go vote, November 2016. And what I understood was that I could vote. So I went to the local church, where I went before I went to prison, and I went to vote. When they looked on the roster, they realized my name wasn’t there. And I was like, “Well, I’ve been living here for over 10 years.” So, when I got ready to walk away, that’s when they stopped me and they told me that, “Hey, you can fill out a provisional ballot.” And I said, “What was that?” They said, “If you’re at the right location, it will count. And if you’re not, it won’t.” So I didn’t see any harm with that. So the lady sat me down and helped me out with it. And that’s exactly what I did.

AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?

CRYSTAL MASON: Then I was arrested for illegally voting.

KIM COLE: Several months later.

CRYSTAL MASON: Yeah, it was several months later. It was March 2017. That’s when they arrested me for illegally voting. And I explained that I—exactly what the lady kept telling me. She told me, “Make sure everything matches” on my driver’s license. So that’s what I kept saying, was I put everything correctly, so I didn’t illegally vote. I put everything on the form correctly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kim Cole, you’re Crystal’s attorney. Could you talk about, first of all, how—how frequently does this happen in Fort Worth, of people being prosecuted for illegal voting? And I’m surprised that in this particular case there wasn’t even any attempt to plea bargain down, even if there was a violation, to something of a much lesser sentence.

KIM COLE: This isn’t prosecuted very frequently in Tarrant County, I can tell you that. There is—I guess there’s a record of discriminatory prosecution, to be politically correct, I guess I will say, but there’s a record of discriminatory prosecution in Tarrant County. But certainly, for this particular type of offense, there’s not a lot of prosecution that goes on for illegal voting.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I mean, I want to—can we compare this to that story of Terri Lynn Rote? A white woman was convicted of the same crime as Crystal after she tried to vote for President Trump—twice.

KIM COLE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: She was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $750 in Iowa. Now, Crystal—

KIM COLE: And that’s—go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: —is going to prison for five years for mistakenly voting, when laws change from state to state?

KIM COLE: I think it is absolutely ridiculous. There is a—I’m not certain where you’re from, but Tarrant County is very proud to be the largest urban red county, you know, in the country. And they want to keep it that way. And this is—this prosecution, in my opinion, is to send a message to minority voters to stay away from the polls.

There is absolutely no reason Crystal should have been prosecuted. She was not aware that she was not eligible to vote. Texas is one of the states where convicted felons do actually have the right to vote. And so, Crystal, unaware that her being on supervised release would prohibit her from voting, that she wasn’t eligible until—even though she had served her prison sentence, she wasn’t eligible until after her supervised release ended. And she was not aware of that. No one told her that. Her supervised release officer testified on the stand that he did not tell Crystal that she was not eligible to vote. And Crystal herself emphatically has proclaimed, from day one, she was not aware that she could not vote in the state of Texas. And here, for the crime of illegal voting, it requires that you vote knowing that you’re not eligible. And that was not the case here. And Crystal was convicted by a judge and found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

Like I said, this, in my belief, is a concerted effort to keep Tarrant County red. This judge is a Republican judge. The state’s star witness was a Republican election judge. He didn’t report Crystal to the police for a crime. He called up his friend, the district attorney, a Republican district attorney, called her up specifically, directly, to prosecute this case. This is a clear message to disenfranchised voters in Tarrant County and to keep minorities from the polls.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, as well. Marc, this whole issue of felon disenfranchisement across the country, are you seeing at the national level any move to reform these policies? And also this selective prosecution, are you seeing any of that, as may be happening here in Fort Worth?

MARC MAUER: Right. Well, we have record numbers of people who can’t vote as a result of a felony conviction: 6 million. But the encouraging news is that over the past two decades a good number of states have begun to reconsider these laws. In many cases, they’ve been on the books for a hundred, even 200, years, with very little scrutiny. So, several states in recent years have cut back the ban on voting after you complete your sentence. Other states—Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island—now permit people on probation and/or parole to vote, too. So there’s a growing movement to reconsider these policies, to scale back. Nonetheless, because of the rise of mass incarceration, the number of people with felony convictions, we still have this record 6 million people who can’t vote.

In terms of prosecutions, we hear stories from around the country. I don’t think they’re—the numbers are that dramatic, but it’s not unusual to hear this. Just recently, a prosecutor in a county in North Carolina charged 12 people with voting illegally, very similar to the situation in Crystal Mason’s case. On that particular case, of the 12 who were charged, nine of them were African-American.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, can’t people vote—in Vermont and Maine, I think it is, can’t you even vote from prison?

MARC MAUER: You can. Vermont and Maine, for many, many decades, have allowed everyone to vote, including people in prison. And internationally, that’s often the norm. If you look at Western Europe, Canada, many other industrialized nations, many of them have no disenfranchisement, essentially saying that there are legitimate punishments for committing a crime, which may involve a period of incarceration, but that doesn’t mean that you forfeit your fundamental rights as a citizen. We still welcome everyone into our democracy. It’s a mixed-up set of opinions that come in democracy—

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you move from one state to another and not realize—I mean, in one place you can vote from prison, in another way you’re—in another place you’re imprisoned if you vote, if you’re under supervised probation in a place like Texas. Is it true, Crystal, that they have told you, when you go to court tomorrow, you should have your bags packed, ready to go to prison? You have three children?

CRYSTAL MASON: I do.

AMY GOODMAN: And they told you you could go to prison tomorrow?

CRYSTAL MASON: Yes, ma’am. Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Your oldest son is just about to go to college?

CRYSTAL MASON: He’s in college.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you—

CRYSTAL MASON: He’s in college. And I go to court on the 30th. And his first game is September the 1st. It’s on Friday. So he’s been talking about coming home. He’s down there on a football scholarship. He’s been talking about coming home. I told him no. And I don’t know if I’m going to make his first game.

AMY GOODMAN: And you could have this 5-year sentence extended to even more time tomorrow? Kim Cole, is that true?

KIM COLE: That’s true. The state sentence is currently under appeal, so she hasn’t begun serving that time. However, in federal court, the judge could sentence her to up to two additional years in federal prison.

AMY GOODMAN: For having violated what she was doing under supervision, though she did not know it was wrong, thought it was a citizen’s duty?

KIM COLE: Right, right. That’s correct, for having a new conviction for voting.

AMY GOODMAN: Crystal, do you ever plan to vote again?

CRYSTAL MASON: I do. I do. And that’s what I’m encouraging my kids, to get out there so we can make a difference right now. I do. I just feel right now that the system failed me. You get out, you rehabilitate yourself, you get a good job, you go to school, you graduate from school, you’re doing everything right—so, why would I go and vote, to go back to prison? Why would I do something like that to lose my kids again, to start all over again, you know? Through all of this, I lost a good job. Through all of this—so, it’s like I’m going backwards instead of forward. Where’s the reform, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Crystal Mason, we have to leave it there. I want to thank you and Kim Cole and Marc Mauer.