Crystal Mason almost didn’t vote. When she arrived at her polling place in Rendon, Texas, on Election Day in 2016, poll workers told her she wasn’t on the voter rolls. Mason, a former tax preparer, had recently gotten out of prison for a felony conviction for tax fraud. She had taken part in a scheme in which she inflated her customers’ deductions so they could get higher returns. After three years in prison, she was now on supervised release, rebuilding her life. She had a new job at a quality-assurance company and was going to night school to be an aesthetician. Part of becoming a productive member of society again, she knew, was participating in democracy. Plus, her mom had been nagging her to exercise her civic right.
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When her name wasn’t on the rolls, Mason started to leave. One of the election workers stopped her. She could fill out a provisional ballot, he said, which would only count if she was later found eligible to vote. Another election worker walked her through the ballot, and Mason filled in the bubble for Hillary Clinton, who she hoped would become the first woman president.
Three months later, she was arrested for voting illegally. Texas law stipulates that convicted felons are only able to vote once they’ve completed their punishment, including parole and probation. Because she was on supervised release when she cast her ballot, a state district judge ruled, she had broken the law. She maintains that she had no idea she couldn’t vote, and never would have risked it had she known. “Why would I dare jeopardize everything that was going for me? I’m going to vote just to throw everything away?” says Mason, who’s now 43. In March, she was sentenced to prison for the offense—for five years.
More than 6.1 million Americans are not able to vote because of a current or previous felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. The laws vary from state to state: In Vermont and Maine, felons can cast a ballot from prison; in Florida, they’re barred from voting forever. (A measure to restore voting rights to felons, excluding those convicted of murder or sexual assault, is on the state’s ballot next month.) In a criminal justice system that disproportionately locks up minorities—African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Caucasians—felony disenfranchisement means that an inordinate number of African Americans are prohibited from voting. More than 7 percent are disenfranchised due to their criminal records, compared to less than 2 percent of all other ethnic groups combined.
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“It’s difficult enough for people coming out of prison to make it constructively in society,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.“When the message comes across that you’re really not a full citizen, that’s only going to harm any efforts toward successful reentry.”
Texas has been part of a fervent crackdown on voting rights, implementing laws that proponents claim keep voter fraud at bay—and critics say primarily target minority voters. In a 2016 ruling striking down the state’s strict voter ID law, a U.S. appeals court found only two in-person voter-fraud convictions out of 20 million ballots cast before the law’s passage. “One can’t help but think that they were trying to make a bigger political point,” Mauer says of Mason’s harsh sentence.
The Tarrant County district attorney’s office points out that prosecutors initially offered Mason probation if she agreed to plead guilty, a deal she and her lawyer rejected. Samantha Jordan, the spokeswoman for the DA’s office, says that Mason knew exactly what she was doing when she cast her ballot. Her provisional ballot included an affidavit swearing that if she was a felon, she had finished her probation or supervision and was therefore eligible to vote. Mason signed it. (She says she didn’t read it carefully.) The county elections administrator also sent a letter dated June 25, 2013, to her home address, informing her that her registration would be canceled due to her felony conviction. She was in prison, serving her sentence, at the time.
Ultimately, Mason’s vote never actually counted; election workers voided it when they determined she wasn’t eligible. She is in the process of appealing her conviction. Her lawyer, Alison Grinter, argues that because her ballot didn’t count, she isn’t guilty of voting at all. And she asserts that Mason, who is black, is the victim of a “targeted intimidation campaign.” Her sentence, she says, will serve to scare other minority voters who fear jail time if they don’t do everything exactly right. “This is pure and simple voter intimidation,” Grinter says.
After Mason was arrested last year, she vowed to never vote again. Eventually, she changed her mind, because “that’s exactly what they wanted.” Voting, she says, is critical to ensuring that the law is applied equally to everyone. “We have to get the right people in office to actually be there for everybody,” Mason says. “If you’re eligible to vote, vote. Because it really matters.” She knows this more than anyone.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of ELLE.