Crystal Mason. Illustration by Gary Myrick
Voting has more power than you’d think.
Crystal Mason will never forget the ballot she cast in the 2016 presidential election. But the Texan shouldn’t have been anywhere near a polling station, even though she was hearing different.
“My mom was like, ‘Go vote. Go vote. Go vote,’” she said.
Her mother’s persistence on that November morning weighed heavy. So, after work, Crystal parked at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Tarrant County, Texas and got in line to vote at the Fort Worth poll. But her name wasn’t on the roster.
That can happen for a number of reasons, including an extended absence from voting or being at the wrong polling station. But she was confident she was in the right place. It’s where she’d voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. Her mom had voted there earlier that day, too.
Crystal remembers a poll worker handing her a provisional ballot.
“(I was told) if you’re at the right location, it’ll count,” Crystal said. “If you’re not, it won’t count. I said, ‘OK let’s do it then because I know this is where I stay.’”
Before we get too far, there are some things you should know about Crystal. She is a mother, grandmother and a felon whose vote under supervised release — it’s similar to parole — is sparking discussions about voter suppression around the world.
While voting, Crystal focused on copying her driver’s license information onto the ballot, but didn’t read the fine print along the top of the form. You could call Crystal careless, but how often do any of us read the fine print?
The oversight would prove to be a life-changing mistake. Crystal left the polls thinking everything was normal. And for a bit, it was.
A few months after the election, a police officer approached Crystal after a short-notice supervised release meeting and told her to put her hands behind her back. Crystal wanted to know why.
For illegally voting.
“I’m like, ‘No ma’am. I used my ID.’ I used everything I was supposed to,” she said. “It’s gotta be a mistake.”
The fine print
When The Curbside Chronicle met up with Crystal, 43, last month in Dallas, she was just one night away from her federal sentencing hearing. She faced up to five-years in federal prison, made all the more grim by the prison sentence she’d already received after losing her state case in March. Crystal is currently appealing the state’s decision, but if her appeal fails, Crystal will have to serve an additional five years in prison on top of a federal sentence.
All this for voting.
So, just how did Crystal become the poster child for voter disenfranchisement? And why was her vote a criminal act?
On that provisional ballot, the fine print reads: “I am a resident of this political subdivision, have not been finally convicted of a felony or if a felon, I have completed all of my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.”
Back in 2012, tax fraud charges landed Crystal behind bars.
After her release in early 2016, she quickly found a job with the Texas Department of Transportation, started taking night classes to become an aesthetician and slowly began rebuilding a life with her family.
Despite taking numerous re-entry classes, Crystal claims that no one covered voting rights. Her supervised release officer testified that to the best of her knowledge, Crystal had never been made aware that she was ineligible to vote. In fact, the probation supervising officer — who oversees supervised release, probation and parole programs — testified that despite being responsible with helping rehabilitate felons, voting rights are in no way part of the supervised release program.
“I can’t even say it’s an honest mistake because I didn’t know it was a mistake,” Crystal said. “When you get out, all the people tell you not to be around guns or drugs. They failed to tell me, ‘Hey, you can’t vote.’”
Crystal had unknowingly joined 500,000 other Texans barred from voting due to a felony conviction.
According to The Sentencing Project, an estimated 6.1 million Americans have lost their ability to vote because of disenfranchisement laws, and, well, those conditions can be confusing. Depending on what state you live in, you could retain the right to vote while in prison or be banned from the polls permanently. In Texas — like Oklahoma and 29 other states — individuals under any kind of criminal justice supervision (parole, probation or supervised release) are unable to vote. A felon can vote in Texas, but not until all supervision or parole has expired.
The Sentencing Project also reports that 2.2 million black US citizens are banned from voting, and felony disenfranchisement policies overwhelmingly impact minority communities. Black Americans of voting age, like Crystal Mason, are more than four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one of every 13 black adults disenfranchised nationally.
So, does the fine print outweigh Crystal’s attempt at rehabilitation after leaving prison?
“I got a job within three days. I went to work, school and church,” she said. “You know, what I was supposed to do.”
Her day in court
On 30 August, Crystal sat in Burnett Park across the street from the Eldon B. Mahon United States Courthouse. She was sharing her story with a national news outlet. When the interview ended, she greeted us warmly and offered a quick hug. As we walked across the street she looked at us and said, “I hope to walk out of those doors with you guys today.”
She did, but not how she had wanted.
Whatever excitement you’ve enjoyed from TV legal dramas shrivels in an actual federal courtroom. It’s quiet, sterile and churchlike. No phones. No cameras. No nonsense. Just a lot of listening and chattering as everyone tries to comprehend the proceedings.
Crystal’s legal team attempted a two-part strategy: 1. Illustrate how Crystal was unclear about the terms of supervised release. 2. Beg the question, is casting a provisional ballot truly voting?
Judge McBryde refuted both arguments. He said he outlined Crystal’s punishment years ago and instructed Crystal in her initial sentencing for the tax fraud case that by pleading guilty, she “may lose some of her civil rights, including her right to vote.” But “may” isn’t certain and no one ever discussed voting rights in any of Crystal’s re-entry classes or supervised release meetings. As for the ballot — although it was never tallied in the 2016 election — it counted as an act of voting.
The judge spent much of the hearing focusing on Crystal’s past. Her tax fraud case wasn’t a small matter to the federal government. She’d prepared hundreds of falsified income tax returns — totaling $4.2 million — for her clients. As restitution, Crystal is expected to pay the amount back in $500 monthly increments. That’s just shy of 165 years of payments. In addition, Crystal was deemed indigent — too poor to make said payments — but given no relief or reductions to the amount owed.
“That offense combined with other criminal conduct is in itself disturbing,” McBryde told the courtroom.
Crystal received an arson charge in 1992 at age 17, but was only sentenced to probation. She dealt with probation again in 1997 when she tried to pass off a fake check. Then there was the matter of entering false information into an application for public assistance back in 2010. Through these charges, including two felony counts, Crystal had avoided prison until she pleaded guilty to tax fraud in 2012, for which she received 60 months in prison and 36 months of supervised release.
As the federal hearing drew to a close, Crystal made a compelling, although untraditional, argument for why her most recent charge of felony illegal voting simply didn’t make sense.
“If I wanted to go to jail again, I’ll catch a real charge. A beneficial charge. This voting? How does it benefit Crystal? How does it benefit Crystal’s kids?” she asked.
Although not a legal argument, it’s a valid point. Passing hot checks, altering public assistance documents and gaming tax returns had all financially benefited Crystal and her family. Voting for president in a winner-takes-all state where the Democratic candidate hadn’t won since Al Gore narrowly beat out George Bush in 2000? It clearly didn’t fit her past criminal motivations.
Who do you believe?
There’s a moment that sticks out to us in regards to Crystal’s State case. It involves a man named Karl Dietrich, who was the election judge at Tabernacle Baptist Church. He was the State’s key witness in Crystal’s trial. Karl has spent five years on active duty in the Navy and another 25 in the Navy Reserves. Oh, and there’s one more thing you should know about Karl — he lives across the street from Crystal.
Defense attorney Justin Moore, said Karl called the District Attorney’s office after Crystal left the poll. Karl also said so on the witness stand, recalling that he had originally left a message at the DA’s office before receiving a return call. He testified to reporting Crystal’s illegal vote.
Court records show Karl recalled walking his neighbor through the provisional ballot, and that Crystal spent time reading over the ballot. Karl also testified that he was not aware his neighbor was a convicted felon. He knew his neighbor had legal issues, sure, but didn’t grasp the severity. However, Crystal hotly contests his knowledge of her legal standing.
Strangely enough, the neighbors were away from home during much of the same time period. While Crystal transitioned between prison and a halfway house, Karl was overseas serving a two-year tour in Afghanistan. This overlap in absences could account for the disconnect.
So, we’re left to wonder: Given Karl’s testimony that he didn’t know Crystal was a felon under the State’s supervision and couldn’t vote, what exactly led him to call the DA? Every provisional ballot is subject to review, but did someone or something influence his call? It’s unclear, even in testimony.
For her part, Crystal said she has zero memory of interacting with him on Election Day. However, she does remember Karl welcoming her back from prison and noticing the improvements she’d made to her house.
This discrepancy cast a large shadow of doubt over Crystal’s case. Who do you believe, the veteran or the felon?
Having previously committed a total of four felonies — which Judge McBryde described in great detail at the August federal hearing — a five-year federal sentence seemed like a sure bet. But then, McBryde surprised the court by showing leniency. He said he would give Crystal the benefit of the doubt.
“In this case a two-year sentence is available,” McBryde said. “I will … sentence her to 10 months imprisonment and 26 months supervised release.”
Given Judge McBryde’s strict track record, the ruling almost seemed like a victory.
But Crystal didn’t take it that way. And who could blame her? Having worked hard to turn her life around, she was now going back to prison for voting. More time away from her kids, grandkids, church, friends and work. All because of this one ballot.
After the hearing ended, you could see Crystal trying to hold back her tears. She started toward the exit, following a procession down a staircase. It halted. Crystal broke down. Her sobs echoed throughout the halls.
So where does that leave us? By the time you read this, Crystal will be in prison again. Her federal sentence will cost taxpayers nearly $20,000. Yet, Crystal remains resilient. Bruised, but not broken.
“I pay taxes. So, I should be able to vote. I want (my kids) to go to the poll because we have to make a change and a difference,” she said. “The real victim is me. You know? And the system really failed me. We need to be educated on who’s actually eligible to go to the polls.”
Courtesy of The Curbside Chronicle / INSP.ngo