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?”
The case is yet another illustration of Texas’s zealous crackdown on voter fraud, a problem that state GOP leaders have described as “rampant” in the past but for which they have yet to provide hard proof, save for isolated cases such as Mason’s.
In a 2016 ruling rejecting Texas’s stringent voter ID law, which state lawmakers had pitched as a way to stop voter fraud, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit found only two convictions for in-person voter fraud out of 20 million ballots cast in the years before the 2011 passage of the law.
While in-person voter fraud is considered extremely rare, mail-in voter fraud is less so. In 2016, Dallas County had to sequester roughly 700 suspicious mail-in ballots for a city council race after receiving complaints from voters, who received mail-in ballots they didn’t request.
Still, after the 2016 general election, President Trump assembled a now-defunct “voter fraud commission” amid his baseless claims that millions of people voted illegally. Texas’s pursuit of in-person voter fraud reflected the Trump administration’s zeal.
In February 2017, another woman in Tarrant County, a Mexican national with a green card, was sentenced to eight years in prison after falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen on her ballot. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Rosa Maria Ortega, a mother of four, testified that she had confused the difference between rights granted to legal permanent resident and to a U.S. citizen, which a jury did not buy. She had voted as a Republican in elections in 2012 and 2014.
“This case shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure, and the outcome sends a message that violators of the state’s election law will be prosecuted to the fullest,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said after Ortega was sentenced. ”
St. John said he believes that Mason’s five-year prison sentence, for what he said was an honest mistake, is a direct result of such rhetoric from Paxton’s office.
“She voted in good faith. She showed who she was. Everything was truthful,” St. John said. “Just like she said in court, ‘Why would I want to jeopardize all the work I did to get out of prison, go to the halfway house and get back to my family, if I knew voting was going to get me into prison?”
On the day of the presidential election, Nov 8., 2016, Mason arrived at her polling place to find that her name wasn’t on the voter roll, St. John said.
An election worker offered to help, he said, and presented her with a provisional ballot, which allows a person to cast a vote as long as they certify they are eligible by signing an affidavit. Small print at the top asks the voter to certify that if she is a felon, she has fully completed her sentence, including supervision or parole of any kind. Mason tried to explain to the judge that, since an election worker was helping her, she was not reading carefully, which, St. John said, failed to sway him.
Ultimately, her vote didn’t even count. Provisional ballots are subject to review, which ultimately led to an investigation of Mason.
St. John said he has already filed an appeal, hoping to keep his client out of prison so she can remain with her family. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a “chorus of small children” waved goodbye to her as a bailiff led her back to jail, saying, “Bye-bye, Big Mama.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever vote again,” she told the news outlet after her indictment. “That’s being honest. I’ll never vote again.”