Effort highlights how Crystal Mason was prosecuted after casting a provisional ballot
Before the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, was declared a global pandemic, the long lines during Super Tuesday on March 3 foreshadowed a challenging election season ahead.
Now, as Texas begins Early Voting in-person and plows ahead toward Election Day on Nov. 3, the ACLU of Texas wants all voters in the state to know their rights and to make sure each and every one of their votes count.
The “Let Texans Vote” campaign – with its companion website at www.aclutx.org/lettexansvote – provides a one-stop resource for election information to help Texas voters understand how to vote safely amid COVID-19, to learn about how the ACLU of Texas is working to expand and protect the right to vote and to ensure all votes are counted.
Voters who encounter problems can call an election protection hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683) for help.
“Texas has a long history of suppressing the votes of Black and Brown communities, so it’s really important for us to get the message out about how people can exercise their right,” said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “We really advise people to go early and to go with time to make sure your vote is counted. … If you have a disability or you’re over 65 and you’re particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, you have other options including a mail-in ballot.”
Barriers to voting in the Nov. 3 election may be more challenging as early, by mail and in-person voting on Election Day, could reach their highest levels in history.
Early voting began this week on Tuesday, Oct. 13. The last day to apply for a mail ballot is Oct. 23.
To illustrate the point, the ACLU wants everyone to know about the case of Crystal Mason.
The Black mother of three from North Texas was sentenced to five years in prison for completing a provisional ballot in Tarrant County during the 2016 general election.
At the time, she was on federal supervised release after serving almost three years in federal prison for tax fraud. She said no one told her that she wasn’t allowed to vote before her supervised release had ended.
Under Texas law, a provisional ballot is cast by a person whose eligibility cannot be proven immediately or by someone without proper identification. If, after the election, administrators confirm eligibility, the ballot will be counted.
Mason’s voting attempt was prosecuted. She was convicted in March 2018 during a one-day bench trial, which was decided by a judge and not a jury. That triggered a violation of her release and she returned to federal prison for seven months.
She is now free from state imprisonment pending her appeal, which the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth rejected in March. The court also denied a request in August for an en banc hearing of the full panel of judges.
“What we are arguing in court is that what Crystal did is exactly right. She submitted a provisional ballot. That ballot wasn’t counted, ever, because, at the time, the state determined that she was on supervised release and that made her ineligible. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work,” Segura said. “The system worked in Crystal’s case and she should have never been prosecuted.”
Mason, her legal team, and her relatives are pursuing all avenues for relief.
“We are now going to be asking the highest criminal court in Texas to review her case. A three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals in Fort Worth affirmed her conviction and wrote a decision that we think has a lot of serious problems – not just for Crystal’s case, but for people in Texas, particularly those who vote with a provisional ballot and exposing them to criminal prosecution like Crystal has been. We’re going to be asking the court to review it and to do what is right, which is for this conviction to not stand,” Segura said. “Crystal has become an example of prosecution gone wrong. What’s most important to us is what Crystal is doing now to educate people about their right to vote.”
Mason and her supporters held a rally in Austin on Oct. 10 asking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to grant a pardon in the case.
“I think people should not be penalized and prosecuted for a provisional ballot,” Mason said. “I think the provisional ballot is in place for exactly what it is. If it’s able to move forward, it does, and if it doesn’t, it’s rejected. Prosecuting a person for a provisional ballot is a scare tactic to scare people away from the polls. That’s a form of voter suppression. I just want Texas to do the right thing.”
Mason added that she is leaning on her faith.
“My life is back on track with the kids and going back to normal,” she said. “I am trusting God through the process.”
If formerly incarcerated people on any form of probation or parole have questions, they should check with their supervising officers, Segura added, and they can contact the ACLU.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic that has many people concerned about showing up at polling places in person, state officials have been challenging voting alternatives, namely access to mail ballots and drop boxes for them.
In August, Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton sued Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins about his plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County. In an Oct. 7 opinion, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state Election Code doesn’t permit sending an application to a voter who has not requested one and prohibited the mass mailing.
Late on Oct. 9, a federal judge blocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot drop-off locations to one per county. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin said the governor’s Oct. 1 declaration came too late and after the Harris County had started mailing absentee ballots. Pitman’s order cited U.S. Supreme Court precedent that says election law should not be changed too close to an election to guard against voter confusion and chaos for election officials.
Abbott said he limited counties to one drop box each to “strengthen voting safety in Texas” and reduce voter fraud.
Harris County, encompassing 1,777 square miles and the state’s largest by population, was set to have 11 drop boxes. The ACLU of Texas filed a brief in the case opposing the governor’s one-box rule as an access issue on behalf of disability rights groups and “hoped the decision stands to make it easier for people to vote,” Segura said.
Texas Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton filed an emergency stay on Oct. 10, which was granted by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and now blocks Texas counties from having multiple ballot drop-off locations.
By Houston Forward Times press time this week, it is likely that this legal showdown has not reached its final resolution.