Texas Made An Example Out Of Crystal Mason — For Trying To Vote

She's appealing a five-year prison sentence and fighting to save her home, all so the state can prop up the myth of "voter fraud." There are serious questions about the case against her.
Allison V. Smith for HuffPost

RENDON, Texas ― There are butterflies everywhere in Crystal Mason’s house. There’s one hanging at the base of the stairs where she bangs on the wall to get the kids up for school in the morning. There’s a small butterfly sticker above a table where her grown children’s high school diplomas are on display. There’s a butterfly hanging above her bed and small butterfly stickers on the side of her bathtub. They’re on Mason too; she has earrings and a ring in the shape of a butterfly. She has 10 butterflies tattooed on her, including several going up the side of her body, one on her left arm and two on her leg.

Butterflies are everywhere because, to Mason, they symbolize new beginnings.

Mason, 44, has a big house ― and a big family. She has three kids of her own, ages 19, 20 and 25, and she raised four of her brother’s kids when he went to prison. Her two grandchildren and three grandnieces, ranging from newborn to age 10, also live with her, as does her mother. In total, there are nearly a dozen people living in Crystal Mason’s two-story house, which has red shutters and white columns and sits on a quiet cul-de-sac in Tarrant County. It’s only about a 25-minute drive to downtown Fort Worth, but Mason describes the area as “the sticks.”

For most of the past year, Mason hasn’t been able to live in this house. From late September to May 1, she was held at Federal Medical Center Carswell, a prison nearby. She was then moved to a halfway house an hour from Rendon, before being released to home confinement on June 24. She’s finally back in her home, with the butterflies and her family, although she is still facing two more years of federal supervised release.

LEFT: Crystal Mason, 44, checks in with the halfway house where she is living to let them know she has made it safely to her home in Rendon, Texas. RIGHT: Mason's diamond butterfly ring. She likes butterflies, she says, because they symbolize new beginnings.
LEFT: Crystal Mason, 44, checks in with the halfway house where she is living to let them know she has made it safely to her home in Rendon, Texas. RIGHT: Mason's diamond butterfly ring. She likes butterflies, she says, because they symbolize new beginnings.
Allison V. Smith for HuffPost

Over the past few months, Mason and her family have been getting by on donations from a GoFundMe account and support from their pastor. But she’s been desperately searching for a job, which would give her and her family health insurance, along with a sense of stability.

While living in the halfway house, Mason was prohibited from driving until she found work. So each morning, her daughter Taylor, 20, would wake up early, make the long haul to pick her up and ferry her around to job interviews. At the end of the day, she would drop her mom off at the halfway house and return home, without her.

Mason and her family are in this position because she tried to vote in the 2016 presidential election.

She didn’t know it at the time, but election officials considered Mason ineligible to vote. She was still serving her sentence for a felony related to inflating tax returns. Even though she was out of prison, she was still on supervised release, a probationary period that can get added on to a prison sentence. Texas only lets people with felony convictions vote once they have completed their criminal sentences entirely.

Even though election officials never counted Mason’s vote ― she used a provisional ballot ― Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson (R) chose to prosecute the case. Prosecutors argued Mason knew she was ineligible to vote and tried to do it anyway. Mason says she had no idea she was ineligible to vote and was just trying to do her civic duty. Last year, Judge Ruben Gonzalez Jr. (R) agreed with Texas and found her guilty, sentencing her to five years in prison.

Mason is appealing that ruling. But because she was convicted of a crime while on supervised release for her federal sentence, the judge in that case sent her back to prison in September.

Now, as she waits for her appeal to move forward, Mason is struggling to put her life back together. She’s fighting hard to keep up to date on the mortgage and worries about losing her house to foreclosure.

A War On Voting

Over the past two decades, Republican politicians have waged a relentless and coordinated assault on voting rights, gutting a key component of the Voting Rights Act, passing voter ID laws, and cutting back on same-day registration and early voting.

Central to this cause has been the myth of widespread voter fraud. In 2002, the George W. Bush Justice Department launched a crackdown on the practice, but after five years, prosecutors failed to produce evidence of extensive wrongdoing. Nonetheless, in 2005, Georgia and Indiana passed the first so-called “strict” voter photo ID laws, which blocked people from casting a vote unless they had an acceptable form of ID (existing state laws at the time had provisions to verify someone’s identity even if they didn’t have adequate ID).

The Indiana law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008, setting the stage for an explosion of voter ID laws. Now, 35 states have put some form of voter ID requirement in place, including seven states that have a strict photo-ID requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some cases, Republicans have openly admitted these efforts benefited their party.

Texas, where Mason lives, has been an epicenter of this crusade. In recent years, the state has enacted tough voter ID provisions and severely restricted who can register voters. Texas has also fought claims that it racially gerrymandered districts and has wrongly claimed tens of thousands of noncitizens were on its voter rolls.

When liberals decry the war on voting rights, they often frame it in terms of the overall balance of party power in the United States, especially when it comes to control of state legislatures and the House of Representatives. More poignantly, voting rights advocates have highlighted cases of individuals who made herculean efforts to exercise a fundamental right, only to be turned aside at the polls.

Then, there are a smaller number of people whose lives have been radically upturned by this campaign, collateral damage in a partisan conflict. Mason is perhaps the most well-known of these casualties. Her case drew national attention last year when her punishment was handed down. Civil rights groups said it was an egregious example of prosecutorial overreach and a clear attempt to scare people like Mason, who is black, from voting.

And Mason isn’t the only one who will be affected by the outcome of her arrest and trial. Her extended family could also lose the roof over their heads, and with it, the anchor of their hard-fought aspirations.

“She’s a mom, she’s a human being with a family, and with a life,” said Alison Grinter, one of Mason’s attorneys. “Putting her body in a box for five years to make a political point ― it’s inexcusable. It’s absolutely inexcusable. It doesn’t matter what point you’re making.”

‘I Will Get This Job’

Mason is tall with short black hair. It used to be long, but she cut it short for a fresh start. She talks fast and always seems to be juggling 10 things at the same time. During one of her first visits home in late May, she oversaw a repairman fixing some uneven floorboards while she followed up on job leads and listened to a pitch from her daughter Taylor about why she needed $500 for a down payment for a new car.

“Taylor, hush, OK?” Mason said, cutting her off. “We’re trying to keep our house right here. And you’re talking about a car. Y’all don’t prioritize things.”

On the surface, Taylor seems like any other 20-year-old. She has dyed red hair and long acrylic nails in different neon colors. There’s a sign on her bedroom door that says “keep TF out.”

She makes fun of the way her mom has randomly started saying “Bye, Felicia,” and thinks Mason is being needlessly cautious when she tells her to drive more slowly.

But underneath these tensions, Taylor and Crystal depend on each other in a way that many mother-daughter pairs don’t. When Mason went to prison, it was Taylor who ran the household, making sure that the mortgage and utility bills were paid on time. Mason would regularly call and email to help her stay on top of things, but until that moment, Taylor had never even paid her own phone or credit card bills. The list of things she had to keep track of always seemed to be getting longer.

Mason, center, with her daughter Taylor, far left, and her biological children, adoptive children and grandkids that she raised in her home in Rendon, Texas.
Mason, center, with her daughter Taylor, far left, and her biological children, adoptive children and grandkids that she raised in her home in Rendon, Texas.
Allison V. Smith for HuffPost

Even today, the lock screen on Taylor’s iPhone is a list of all the things she needs to do.

The day before Taylor’s car pitch, Mason had accompanied her and Taylor’s 18-year-old cousin Janae Lee to a job interview. In the passenger seat of her daughter’s beat-up Ford Focus, Mason took a constant stream of phone calls while rifling through a folder stuffed with resumes and other documents. The trio had just made a last-minute trip to Target to get interview-appropriate clothes. Taylor thought the shirt and jeans she had been wearing were just fine; her mom did not.

Mason gave the two last-minute interview tips: Remember to shake the interviewer’s hand and look them in the eye. Don’t dismiss the job just because it’s an entry-level position ― you could climb up quickly.

When they got to the interview, Mason called the halfway house to check in, and then sat at a folding table behind the girls as they prepared. She couldn’t sit still, getting up repeatedly to make sure they were filling out paperwork correctly and reminding them to stand up when the interviewer came.

When the interview ended, everyone piled into the car quickly so Mason could rush to her own job interview. Although it usually makes her scared, she told Taylor to drive fast. A few minutes later, there was a grinding sound from the rear of the vehicle, followed by the smell of burning rubber.

Mason found a nearby tire shop, and it turned out there was a problem with a wheel bearing. She was soon on the phone with a friend telling him she needed to get picked up.

Mason believes that if you want something, you have to speak it into existence. She prays each day for a pardon, to keep her house, and for her mother’s good health. Standing in the driveway of the tire shop in her heels, she says confidently, “I will get this job.”

A GOP Strategy

Things were much different for Mason a decade ago. In 2008, she and her then-husband had been running a tax preparation business for a few years when she bought her house outside Fort Worth. She wanted her kids to be able to live in a nice neighborhood, and the 3.5 acres of land that came with the property seemed large enough for her family to have all the space they needed. There was room to ride four-wheelers, set off firecrackers on the Fourth of July and for their pets ― dogs, fish, rabbits and even some snakes.

That same year, Barack Obama was elected president. While many saw the election of the first black president as a moment of rebirth for the country, it set off a wave of panic among conservatives about the possibility of a permanent Democratic majority. By 2012, Republican Party leadership was sounding the alarm and exhorting the party to be more inclusive to nonwhite groups.

“The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become,” the party wrote in an autopsy of the 2012 election. “America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction.”

But some Republicans were seeking to preserve their political power in a different way.

After dominating state legislative elections in 2010, Republicans turned their attention to passing voting restrictions. In 2011, GOP lawmakers in Texas passed the strictest voter identification requirement in the country, arguing that the measure was necessary to combat voter fraud, even though there was no substantial evidence of it. The law blocked people from voting unless they had certain forms of approved identification, which at the time included a handgun permit, but not a student ID.

The federal government, operating under a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, blocked the law from going into effect, saying it was discriminatory.

The same year Texas passed its voter ID law, Mason’s life changed forever. The federal government indicted her and her then-husband on charges that they had inflated some of the tax returns they prepared. Mason was accused of helping her clients make up expenses so that their tax bills would be lower. She ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government and was sentenced to five years in federal prison along with three years of supervised release. (Mason, who accepts responsibility for her crimes, had previously been charged with three other felonies. She was placed on probation for two of them and received deferred adjudication for the third.)

Like 47 other states, Texas strips people of the right to vote once they’re convicted of a felony. But unlike some other states, it doesn’t let people vote once they’re out of prison ― they have to finish their sentences completely. Policies on whether and how people convicted of felonies can regain the right to vote vary widely by state. And they can be extremely confusing, often making it difficult for someone released from prison to figure out if they can vote or not.

In May 2013, Tarrant County election officials sent a letter to Mason’s home informing her that her voter registration would be canceled because of her felony conviction and gave her 30 days to respond. On June 25, 2013, election officials sent a second letter to Mason’s house letting her know her voter registration had been canceled.

But Mason never got either letter; she had already been in federal prison for over a year when they were sent to her home. She says no one in her house ever saw the letters.

The same day Texas sent Mason the second letter, the U.S. Supreme Court happened to deliver its hugely consequential voting rights decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, the court struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination, like Texas, to clear voting changes with the federal government. It was the same provision the federal government had used to block Texas’ discriminatory voter ID law from taking effect.

That day, Texas announced it would seek to enact its new voter ID law.

Confusion At The Polls

When Mason got out of prison in 2015, she promised her family she wouldn’t leave them again. They were at risk of losing their house then too, but Mason got a job working at the Texas Department of Transportation and then a better one doing quality assurance for Santander. She also went back to school and got a license to be an aesthetician and do teeth whitening.

As the 2016 election approached, Texas was still fighting over its voter ID law. After the Shelby decision, civil rights groups had successfully sued to block the law from going into effect. Texas eventually made some concessions to make it easier for people who didn’t have an accepted form of ID to vote, and the amended law was temporarily allowed to go into effect. Overall, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place by the time of the presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Meanwhile, with the election just weeks away, Republican candidate Donald Trump, who was lagging in the polls, began repeatedly warning that the election could be stolen. “So important that you watch other communities, because we don’t want this election stolen from us,” he told a mostly white crowd in Pennsylvania in October 2016.

Mason wasn’t really paying attention to any of this when she went to vote on Nov. 8, 2016. Although there are pictures of Obama and Malcolm X in her living room, she doesn’t consider herself a particularly political person, and she says she wouldn’t have voted had her mom not nagged her all day.

“Win, lose or draw, the bottom line is you can’t complain about the situation if you don’t apply yourself and vote,” Mason’s mom, Sherrian McGrady, 64, had been telling everyone.

Because of McGrady’s badgering, Mason made the long drive from downtown Dallas to her polling place after work. There, she checked in with Jarrod Streibich, a 16-year-old volunteering in an election for the first time. Streibich, who also happened to be Mason’s neighbor, couldn’t find her name on the rolls, so he looked Mason up under a hyphenated last name that she used to use. He still couldn’t find her.

Mason couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t showing up. She’d had the same address since 2008, so she knew she was in the right place. She remembered that she granted her mother power of attorney over her children, so she wondered if that somehow impacted her voting status.

Streibich, now 19, told HuffPost that he had been aware that Mason was a convicted felon who was still on supervised release. And he knew that felons in Texas couldn’t vote while on probation.

I knew for a fact that she was just recently let out of prison and that she was a felon,” he said.

Streibich told HuffPost that Mason’s house had a reputation for being rowdy and that once she returned from prison, some in the neighborhood were concerned. “Only between a few families, everyone started wondering, ‘Oh, well, is she back? We can expect more trouble to come around,’” he said.

Even though he knew Mason had gotten out of prison relatively recently, Streibich just forgot that she was ineligible to vote, he told HuffPost.

Mason says she was getting ready to leave the polling station when Streibich suggested she could vote using a provisional ballot. He explained that if she was in the right place, the ballot would count, and if she wasn’t, the ballot wouldn’t count. Mason agreed to fill it out.

Streibich said he then called over Karl Diederich, a precinct chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party who was serving as an election judge for the polling location. Diederich was also Mason’s neighbor; he lived right across the street from her.

Diederich would later testify that he was vaguely aware of Mason’s criminal trouble, but because he had recently been deployed in Afghanistan, he was unsure if she had been convicted.

According to Diederich, after confirming Mason wasn’t on the voter rolls, he began helping her fill out a provisional ballot affidavit. The right side of this affidavit asks voters to write down relevant information ― name, address and driver’s license number, along with a signature. The left side contains prompts for the election judge to fill out, and a warning about who can and can’t vote:

“I am a registered voter of this political subdivision and in the precinct in which I’m attempting to vote and have not already voted in this election (either in person or by mail). I am a resident of this political subdivision, have not been finally convicted of a felony or if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.”

Mason filled out a provisional ballot like this one when she tried to vote in the 2016 election. She said she didn't see the warning on the left side about who was and wasn't eligible to vote.
Mason filled out a provisional ballot like this one when she tried to vote in the 2016 election. She said she didn't see the warning on the left side about who was and wasn't eligible to vote.

‘I Wish That I Had Never Opened My Mouth’

When Mason signed this affidavit, she swore under criminal penalty to the accuracy of that statement. And what happened in the minutes leading up to that moment forms the most crucial ― and most contested ― part of her case.

The state relied on testimony from Streibich and Diederich to prove that Mason read the language on the affidavit and thus knew she was ineligible. But Diederich, Streibich and Mason all have different versions of what happened.

Diederich testified he pointed Mason to that part of the affidavit and told her to read it over and fill it out. While he couldn’t say with 100% certainty that she actually read it, Diederich said that Mason paused and that it seemed like she read it.

Once she filled out the ballot, Diederich testified, he asked Mason again if all the information was accurate. In his account, she said it was. Diederich testified he even held up his right hand and had Mason swear the information in the provisional ballot was true. Diederich also said in an interview he did not remember anyone else assisting Mason with the provisional ballot.

In contrast, Streibich told HuffPost that Diederich started to help Mason fill out the provisional affidavit, but that Diederich was called away to assist another voter. Streibich said that he saw Mason fill out the ballot at a nearby table, and that he witnessed her going over it line by line with her finger. He said there was another poll worker, a woman, who assisted Mason with her provisional ballot too.

Mason, however, says Diederich is lying ― and that she never even saw him at the polls on Election Day. In her telling, after Streibich checked her in, another poll worker was sitting with her as she filled out the affidavit and told her to make sure that all of the information she wrote in exactly matched what was on her driver’s license. Mason says she was so focused on this task that she didn’t read the warning on the left side of the ballot. She also says that Streibich couldn’t have seen her filling out the provisional affidavit because she was sitting at a table behind him when she was doing it.

HuffPost attempted to contact all of the poll workers who were there the day Mason voted, but was unable to speak with any of them other than Streibich and Diederich. No other poll workers testified at Mason’s trial.

A little while after Mason left the polling place, Streibich remembered that she was ineligible to vote and alerted Diederich. Diederich, who had worked several previous elections, told HuffPost he wasn’t sure whom he should contact. There were several officials he could have notified of the ineligible ballot, including local election officials or the Texas secretary of state. Eventually ― he says he can’t remember why ― he decided to contact the Tarrant County district attorney.

Streibich said in an interview he’s confident Mason is guilty and said she was “lucky” not to get a more severe punishment. But he also said he felt bad for Mason and wished he had better instruction from election officials on what he should have told her. Even if he had remembered Mason’s status in the moment, Streibich said it wasn’t his place to block her from trying to vote.

“If I had the proper training of how to tell her, ‘Hey, I know you were just recently let out of prison and you can’t vote,’ I would definitely tell her that,” he said. “I did not have the proper training. I was just trained on writing down names, giving them the ballot and making sure they signed papers.”

For her part, Mason’s mother said she had no idea her daughter couldn’t vote. McGrady now regrets that she encouraged her daughter to go to the polls.

“I wish that I had never opened my mouth,” she said.

Sending A Message

Within days, the district attorney’s office began investigating Mason and obtained information showing that her ballot was canceled because of her felony conviction. About three months later, in February 2017, as Mason was leaving a routine probation meeting, an investigator from the district attorney’s office arrested her. When the investigator told her she was being arrested for illegally voting, Mason was confused. She said she wouldn’t violate her probation just to vote.

When Mason’s trial came in March 2018, prosecutors had a challenge. They had to convince Ruben Gonzalez Jr., the judge in Mason’s case, beyond a reasonable doubt that Mason knew she was ineligible to vote (her trial lawyer advised her to forgo a jury trial). But Kenneth Mays, a supervisor in the probation office, testified that no one ever told Mason she couldn’t vote. It was just “common knowledge” that people on supervised release couldn’t vote, he said.

Unable to rely on the probation supervisor, the prosecutors turned to Streibich and Diederich to make their case. When Gonzalez asked for direct evidence that Mason knew she was ineligible to vote, the prosecutors pointed to Diederich’s statement that Mason appeared to pause and read over the affidavit. They also highlighted Streibich’s testimony that he saw her read it line by line.

That was enough for Gonzalez. He believed Diederich and Streibich and not Mason. It didn’t matter that Mason said she had never seen Diederich at the polls. And it didn’t matter that Mason’s provisional ballot was never counted in the first place. After a 40-minute break, he came back and ruled Mason was guilty. The whole trial took just a few hours.

When it came time to sentence Mason, Matt Smid, one of the prosecutors, urged the judge to send a tough message to any person who would vote illegally.

“This process that we have, the voting system in America, it is second to none,” Smid said, according to a transcript. “It is sacred to Americans, and she has violated the sanctity of this process, and we respectfully request that this Court send a message to illegal voters that if you’re going to violate the sanctity of this system, it will not be tolerated and [you] will pay the consequences.”

Gonzalez sentenced her to five years in prison. He offered no explanation for the sentence.

Crystal Mason, middle, during a break in Ruben Gonzalez's court at Tim Curry Justice Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 25, 2018.
Crystal Mason, middle, during a break in Ruben Gonzalez's court at Tim Curry Justice Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 25, 2018.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram via Getty Images

In late September 2018, Crystal Mason self-surrendered to authorities and began a 10-month sentence for violating the terms of her federal supervised release. Meanwhile, lawyers have appealed her conviction in Texas for voting illegally.

The day she was sentenced to prison for trying to vote, Mason immediately began helping Taylor, then 19, prepare for what she needed to do to run the house. She made a list of all the expenses and made sure Taylor had access to necessary checking accounts and credit cards.

“It was just like me telling her, ‘This is what you gotta do. I need you to toughen up and I need you to do this.’” Mason said.

Mason had also recently dropped her son Sanford off for his first semester of college, crying while she did. He was a safety on a football scholarship, but he missed his first game of the season to come back and spend one last weekend with his mother before she turned herself in.

Mason says going back to prison has filled her with shame. She had promised herself and her kids that she would never end up there again.

“All I kept saying is, ‘I know y’all ashamed. I know y’all ashamed.’ Because I’m in the news. I’m everywhere. My kids are in school and stuff,” Mason says. “I felt like they were ashamed of me. You know like, ‘Dang, your mama in jail again.’”

Mason said her family doesn’t have a backup plan if they lose her house ― that’s why she’s so determined to get a job.

“All I wanted to do is make sure I have a homestead for my kids,” Mason said. “So when I go I’m able to leave them something that we can keep in the family. If anything happens, they’ll have somewhere to come to to live.”

Mason was recently optimistic when she got a job working as a contractor for a state agency, but after a few weeks her supervisor called her in and told her they were dismissing her. They didn’t offer a reason, but Mason suspects it’s related to her voting case.

“I wasn’t going to cry in front of them, but I did cry,” Mason said.

Mason tried to make this point during her trial. When she was called to testify, she asked Smid why she would risk everything she had rebuilt for her family just to vote. Smid, the prosecutor, was dismissive of that argument, noting that she had kids when she committed her original tax crime.

It kills Mason to ask her kids for financial help. She’s supposed to be the provider, she says, giving them a cushion while they figure out what they want to do with their lives. But while she was in prison, Taylor took charge of running the house’s finances. Sanford came home early from school to help out financially and now plans to transfer to a school closer to home. Mason did her best to help Taylor from prison, but things got so stressful that at least once Taylor called Sanford at college crying about the ever-growing list of things to do.

“That’s not fair that my kids can’t grow into their career and be able to go to school,” Mason said. “Now I have to depend on the kids to get a job and help me out.”

Some members of Mason’s family believe that her neighbors, Streibich and Diederich, purposefully turned her in. They say their family, some of the only black people in the neighborhood, have long been disliked.

“This was just a way to get us out of the neighborhood,” said John McGrady, Mason’s 17-year-old nephew.

Streibich and Diederich strongly denied that their actions had anything to do with Mason as a neighbor or her race.

“That’s so reprehensible, oh my God,” Diederich said. “They live across the street, right? And so I have to get along with them as neighbors. So you get along. You do things to get along.” He added that he and other families had been supportive of Mason’s family.

“I had friends who had read the story and they knew that I was working that night and they were asking me, ‘Were you only getting after her if she was black?’ And I was like, ‘No, I would have done the same thing if it was a white person,’” Streibich said.

Mason said she understands why her family feels targeted, but she is trying to keep an open mind. “I don’t like to assume or stereotype anybody, because we’ve been stereotyped for so long. So that’s not my goal, to be like, ‘Oh, you don’t like me because I’m black.’ I don’t want to do that,” she said.

Deterring Legal Voters

Depending on what happens in her appeal, Mason could end up in prison once again, serving out her five-year sentence for illegal voting. An appeals court is set to hear her case later this year. Mason’s lawyers argue that she didn’t technically do anything illegal because her provisional ballot ultimately went uncounted. And they say that the Texas statute under which Mason was convicted is vague as to whether someone on supervised release for a federal crime can vote. Her lawyers also argue that Mason received ineffective assistance from her original trial lawyer, who they say failed to present mitigating evidence from Mason’s mom or her niece, among other errors.

Underlying their approach is a deeper concern with the district attorney’s decision to pursue conduct they say was an obvious mistake. Provisional ballots, required by a 2002 federal law signed by George W. Bush, are supposed to be a safeguard to ensure that people don’t get turned away at the polls if there’s a question about their eligibility. Aggressively prosecuting people like Mason who utilize a provisional ballot will deter others who are actually eligible to vote from doing so, advocates argue.

“What concerned us the most was the gradual criminalization of regular voting activity,” said Hani Mirza, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who is helping represent Mason. “We believe this trend is only going to severely chill voting to the point where we need to step in as voting rights experts.”

Wilson, the Tarrant County district attorney, declined to answer questions about the case. She defended her office’s handling of it in a statement.

“Our office offered Mason the option of probation in this case, which she refused. She chose to have a trial by judge, and the judge found beyond a reasonable doubt from the evidence that she knew she wasn’t eligible to vote and voted anyway,” the statement read.

“We are bound ethically to follow the laws of this State. Prosecuting a four-time felon for once again breaking the law is not a scare tactic,” she added. “The only ones who have ever tried to politicize this case are Mason and her representatives. No one has anything to fear from our office unless the person chooses to break the law.”

Texas has taken a number of steps over the last few years to crack down on allegedly nefarious voting activity. In February 2017, the same month Mason was arrested, another woman in Tarrant County was sentenced to eight years in prison for voting as a noncitizen. She also said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote. A homeless man was also sent to jail for 10 days after making a false statement on an absentee ballot application. A white justice of the peace was sentenced to five years’ probation for forging signatures to get on the GOP ballot. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) is currently prosecuting four people on charges of illegal election activity in Tarrant County.

In February 2018, Paxton’s office announced it was ramping up its efforts to crack down on voter fraud. Since then, nearly all of the cases his office has prosecuted appear to be people who were confused about the law. Earlier this year, Texas officials loudly announced they had found nearly 100,000 noncitizens on the state’s voter rolls, and Paxton threatened to prosecute them. Civil rights groups quickly sued the state, which admitted that the analysis was based on flawed data and ultimately agreed not to cancel anyone’s voter registration based on the information.

State lawmakers were also considering a wide-ranging new election measure earlier this year that Mason’s lawyers believe is directly connected to her case. Among other things, a provision in the bill would have made it a crime to vote illegally, even if the person didn’t know they were ineligible. The measure failed to clear the state legislature before the end of the session.

“We think that if the legislature is trying to make that clear, we think that it wasn’t clear to begin with,” said Andre Segura, an attorney with the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is also helping represent Mason.

Mason, third from left, photographed outside her home in Rendon, Texas, with her children Taylor Hobbs, Sanford Hobbs and Keyoshia Hobbs.
Mason, third from left, photographed outside her home in Rendon, Texas, with her children Taylor Hobbs, Sanford Hobbs and Keyoshia Hobbs.
Allison V. Smith for HuffPost

When Mason went to prison last year, Taylor got a job doing some work for Beto O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign. She would go canvassing door to door and try to get people to vote. She says that when people were skeptical of voting, she would share her mom’s story, which did in fact help convince some people to vote. It made Mason proud to see her daughter involved in a campaign.

But when Election Day came around, Taylor didn’t actually vote. She was too scared.

After seeing what happened to her mom, she was worried about what would happen to her.

Want to learn more about voting rights? Listen to “Shut Out,” HuffPost’s 3-part podcast about the fight to vote in America. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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