Crystal Mason never intended to become an activist. But after being sentenced to five years in prison for unknowingly casting an illegal ballot in the 2016 election, Mason committed herself to advocate for voting rights: On the day she was released from prison, Mason writes in a new op-ed for the Washington Post, she held a “welcome home” party with a voter registration table.
The op-ed, published Monday, grants Mason the space to tell her story–including the circumstances of her 2016 arrest and conviction—and how it fits into a larger climate where voter suppression remains a major concern for many nonwhites looking to cast a ballot in the 2020 election.
Mason, as has been reported before, was on federal supervised release in November because of a previous tax fraud conviction. What she didn’t know—because no one had told her—was that her status made it illegal for her to vote. So when she accompanied her mother to “the same polling place we always went to,” she didn’t understand why her name wasn’t on the rolls. As is common in those instances, a poll worker handed Mason a provisional ballot to fill out—meaning her vote wouldn’t even count until after her voter eligibility was determined.
That ballot, thanks to a one-day trial and an overly-punitive Texas judge, would get Mason sentenced to five years in prison. She was released earlier this year.
“The whole thing felt like a nightmare,” Mason writes. “I kept thinking there had been a mistake. Never did I think casting a ballot was something that could get you in trouble.”
In the years since Mason’s case was reported on and publicized, she’s frequently been used as a convenient (and effective) counterpoint—a statistic readily brought out any time someone wants to point out how disproportionately the justice system punishes black people for ludicrously mundane missteps, while giving white defendants charged with more egregious crimes nothing more but a slap on the wrist.
But Mason adds much-needed depth to that portrayal, emphasizing that her case sends a clear message to others like her: Stay away from the polls.
Little did I know, I had just caught myself in a storm of anti-voter panic. Following the election, the government aggressively went after cases of alleged voter fraud, even though there has never been any widespread evidence of it — either in Texas or nationally.
The main problems with voter fraud don’t come from regular citizens such as me. They come from people such as Russ Casey, Tarrant County’s now-former justice of the peace, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to forging signatures to get his name on the ballot during his reelection campaign. Casey would have benefited from the position’s power if he had gotten away with the fraud. Yet he was given just a slap on the wrist: five years of probation and no jail time.
The people who pay the price are folks such as me who believed they were doing the right thing. It’s a life-altering price — a message our elected officials are trying to send to scare us away from the voting booth with harsh sentencing laws.
The fight for voting rights has already kicked into high gear for 2020, with former Georgia state representative and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams dedicating the next year to organizing for free and fair elections across the country. Last month, Arekia Bennett, Executive Director of Mississippi Votes, wrote an op-ed in The Root about efforts to engage black youth in the state’s famously restrictive electoral process.
Since being released from prison, Mason says she’s received “for the first time” a form from her supervised release officer clearly stating that she cannot vote while on federal supervised release. The form brought her to tears.
“[I]f I had been given that piece of paper from my supervised release officer back in 2016, I wouldn’t be fighting to keep my family together and to keep my job and home,” Mason writes. She’s unsure whether the form was distributed because of her case, but “at the very least, this new form might help another person avoid the pain I have gone through.”
Mason writes that now that she knows “what the system can do to people,” she feels responsible to impart those lessons to the next generation. She feels particularly heartened by how passionately young people have been in insisting on their rights:
“They know in their hearts that if our votes didn’t matter, the system wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop us.”