Crystal Mason’s mom insisted that she vote in the 2016 presidential election, but when she went to her polling place in Tarrant County, Texas, she found her name wasn’t on the rolls. A poll worker helped her fill out a provisional ballot, of the sort given to people who aren’t on the rolls, and she cast it.
Five years earlier, Mason had pleaded guilty to tax fraud and was ordered to pay $4.2 million in restitution. She was also sentenced to five years in prison, as well as three years of supervised release. Though Mason says she didn’t realize it at the time, by casting that provisional ballot in November 2016, she had committed another felony. Texas prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from voting, and only allows them to vote once they have entirely finished their sentence, including any probation, parole and supervised release. In Texas, it is a second-degree felony to vote in an election in which you know you are not eligible.
On Wednesday, state District Judge Ruben Gonzalez sentenced Mason to five years in prison for illegally voting, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Mason says she had no idea she was ineligible, but Gonzalez pointed out that an affidavit at the top of the provisional ballot notes that people on supervised release can’t vote.
J. Warren St. John, Mason’s attorney, told HuffPost that no one at the federal court, the prison, the halfway house or the probation house had ever told Mason she was ineligible to vote because she was a convicted felon. Mason has worked to restart her life after getting released from prison, St. John said, getting a job with the Texas Department of Transportation, then getting a degree from beauty school and becoming self-employed.
In court, Mason rhetorically asked why she would intentionally jeopardize her new life to vote.
“I inflated returns,” Mason said, according to the Star-Telegram. “I was trying to get more money back for my clients. I admitted that. I owned up to that. I took accountability for that. I would never do that again. I was happy enough to come home and see my daughter graduate. My son is about to graduate. Why would I jeopardize that? Not to vote... I didn’t even want to go vote.”
St. John said he plans to file an appeal and that Mason, who was taken into custody on Wednesday, is currently out of jail on a $20,000 bond.
St. John said it’s ridiculous to think his client intentionally defrauded the state of Texas to vote. He noted that Mason went to the same polling place where she’d always voted, and used a legitimate driver’s license and address. There’s no evidence, St. John said, that Mason even read the language on the provisional ballot telling her that people on supervised release are ineligible to vote.
In 2016, there were more than 6 million people in the United States who were disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project. States differ in how voting rights are restored. In four states, felons are permanently disenfranchised and can only have their voting rights restored at the discretion of the governor. Some states allow people to vote once they are released from prison, while others, like Texas, force them to complete all aspects of their sentences before they can vote again.
Voter fraud is exceedingly rare in the U.S., but Mason’s case and others illustrate how ineligible people sometimes end up casting ballots out of confusion. In 2017, a Texas mother of four who legally immigrated to the United States was sentenced to eight years in jail for unknowingly illegally voting in multiple elections. She now faces likely deportation. In North Carolina, the district attorney in Alamance County is pursuing criminal charges against several felons who voted while they were on probation. At least a few of them say they didn’t know they couldn’t vote.
“Why would she vote illegally?” St. John said of his client. “What benefit does she receive by doing that? Nothing she did changed the outcome of any election. It didn’t count anyway because she was kicked out.”
Sharen Wilson, the Tarrant County district attorney, said in a statement Friday that Mason had chosen to break the law.
“Our society is built on personal responsibility,” Wilson said. “There were multiple safeguards in place to keep Crystal Mason from breaking the law, but she still made that choice.”
“She signed and affirmed a document which clearly stated that (1) she was prohibited from voting due to her status as a convicted felon still serving her term of supervision, and (2) she would be committing a second degree felony if she lied about her status,” Wilson went on. “The judge found her guilty of illegal voting beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge set her sentence after hearing all the facts of the case.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the chair of the congressional black caucus, said he was “heartbroken” over Mason’s case.
“The punishment does not fit the crime in this instance. This woman now faces the prospect of more time away from her family just because she was transitioning away from a prison setting,” he said in a statement. “Americans should be ashamed of this prison sentence.”
This post has been updated with comment from Wilson and Richmond.