Her Ballot Didn’t Count. She Faces 5 Years in Prison for Casting It.

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On Election Day 2016, Crystal Mason went to vote after her mother insisted that she make her voice heard in the presidential election. When her name didn’t appear on official voting rolls at her polling place in Tarrant County, Texas, she filled out a provisional ballot, not thinking anything of it.

Ms. Mason’s ballot was never officially counted or tallied because she was ineligible to vote: She was on supervised release after serving five years for tax fraud. Nonetheless, that ballot has wrangled her into a lengthy appeals process after a state district court sentenced her to five years in prison for illegal voting, as she was a felon on probation when she cast her ballot.

Ms. Mason maintains that she didn’t know she was ineligible to vote.

“This is very overwhelming, waking up every day knowing that prison is on the line, trying to maintain a smile on your face in front of your kids and you don’t know the outcome,” Ms. Mason said in a phone interview. “Your future is in someone else’s hands because of a simple error.”

Her case is now headed for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest state court for criminal cases, whose judges said on Wednesday that they had decided to hear it. Ms. Mason unsuccessfully asked for a new trial and lost her case in an appellate court.

“Our office offered Mason the option of probation in this case, which she refused,” the statement said. “Mason waived a trial by jury and chose to proceed to trial before the trial judge.”

In March 2018, Judge Ruben Gonzalez of Texas’ 432nd District Court found Ms. Mason guilty of a second-degree felony for illegally voting.

According to Tommy Buser-Clancy, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Ms. Mason should never have never been convicted. If there is ambiguity in someone’s eligibility, the provisional ballot system is there to account for it, he said.

“That’s very scary,” he said of Ms. Mason’s conviction, “and it guts the entire purpose of the provisional ballot system.”

If her eligibility was incorrect, he said, “that should be the end of the story.”

The appeals court’s decision could set an important precedent for the future of how the public interprets voting, especially if they’re confused, according to Joseph R. Fishkin, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He said he hoped that the court establishes a principle not to “criminalize people for being confused about the complexities of the interaction between the criminal law and election law.”

Professor Fishkin said that he and many other law experts believe that if the court upholds Ms. Mason’s conviction, the state would be in direct conflict with the federal Help America Vote Act.

“It’s very important for basic fairness and for participation around the country that people are confident that when they act in good faith and aren’t trying to pull a fast one, that you’re not going to start charging them for crimes,” Professor Fishkin said Thursday. “If this case stands, that’s obviously concerning, because a lot of people who may not understand the details of their status or who is allowed to vote will be deterred from voting.”



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