A Black Texas woman sentenced to five years in prison for voting when she was ineligible will have a new chance to get her conviction overturned.
Texas law allows people who have been “fully discharged” from their sentence or have been pardoned to vote after a conviction. Crystal Mason was on supervised release for tax evasion charges when she cast a provisional vote in the 2016 general election. She was arrested and convicted of a second-degree felony in 2018, court documents show.
Mason appealed the conviction arguing that she was not aware her rights were not automatically restored. She and her attorneys also argued that federal law preempted state law and her provisional ballot was never counted. The Second Court of Appeals in Tarrant County disagreed and ruled against Mason in 2020.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion on Wednesday calling on the lower appellate court to review its decision because it could not prove Mason’s intentions.
The highest criminal court in Texas said the lower court made an error when it upheld Mason’s conviction and misinterpreted state law in 2020. Wednesday’s ruling was issued with an 8-1 majority.
“The state was required to prove not only that [Mason] knew she was on supervised release but also that she ‘actually realized’ that ‘these circumstances … in fact’ rendered her ineligible to vote,” Judge Jesse McClure III wrote.
When Mason went to the precinct to vote, the poll worker reportedly could not find her name on the voter rolls and advised Mason to use a provisional ballot, the appropriate remedy under the state’s law.
McClure also pointed out Wednesday that the state Legislature recently amended the state’s statute to retroactively specify a provisional ballot affidavit alone is insufficient evidence to charge a person with illegal voting. Prosecutors must find other evidence that the voter “knowingly committed the offense,” he said.
“What this decision says is that innocent mistakes can’t be prosecuted,” Tommy Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, told NPR.
Mason is currently free on bond. Her case must now be reviewed by the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
In late April, a Tennessee district attorney dropped voter fraud charges against Black Lives Matter activist Pamela Moses for voting in 2018 even though her felony record made her ineligible. Moses thought her rights could be restored and had received clearance from corrections officials. Her conviction was overturned in February.
Mason and Moses’ are two of many cases voting advocates say reflect the racial disparity in the nation’s criminal justice system and the ongoing battle against voter suppression.
“This court’s decision today gives us hope not just for Ms. Mason, but for the broader fight for voting rights in Texas,” said Hani Mirza, voting rights program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “We remain hopeful that justice will prevail, and show that in a democracy, innocent mistakes about voting cannot be subject to harsh criminal penalties.”
A March 2021 analysis of Texas’ attorney general’s Election Integrity Unity found that more than 70 percent (72 percent) of voter prosecutions targeted Black and Latino voters.
The study conducted by the ACLU of Texas also found that 86 percent of the unit’s prosecutions involved cases in counties with majority nonwhite and Latino populations, and 45 percent of the alleged offenders were Black or Latina women.
“I am pleased that the court acknowledged issues with my conviction, and am ready to defend myself against these cruel charges,” Crystal Mason said.
“My life has been upended for what was, at worst, an innocent misunderstanding of casting a provisional ballot that was never even counted. I have been called to this fight for voting rights and will continue to serve my community