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Opinion | Crystal Mason Was Sentenced to Five Years Behind Bars Because She Voted

You wouldn’t get that sense from how Ms. Mason has been treated. After her voting conviction, a federal judge found she had violated the terms of her supervised release, and sentenced her to 10 extra months behind bars. That punishment, which she began serving in December 2018, earned her no credit toward her five-year state sentence.

Ms. Mason has continued to fight her case, but so far she has lost at every step. In March 2020, a three-judge panel on a state appellate court rejected her challenge to her sentence. The court reasoned that she broke the law simply by trying to vote while knowing she was on supervised release. It didn’t matter whether she knew that Texas prohibits voting by people in that circumstance.

This appears to be a clear misapplication of Texas election law, which criminalizes voting only by people who actually know they are not eligible, not those who, like Ms. Mason, mistakenly believe that they are. It’s as though Ms. Mason had asked a police officer what the local speed limit was, and he responded: “Beats me. Why don’t you start driving and see if we pull you over?”

Last week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal cases, agreed to rule on Ms. Mason’s appeal. It’s her last chance to avoid prison for voting. Tossing her conviction would bring a small measure of justice to a woman whose punishment should have been limited to, at most, not being able to cast a ballot.

But it wouldn’t give her back the last four years of fear and uncertainty she has endured for no good reason. Ms. Mason’s first grandchild was born a few months ago, another reminder of how much she would miss if she were to lose the appeal and end up back behind bars. “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 told The Times in an interview. “Your future is in someone else’s hands because of a simple error.”

Identifying errors like these is the whole point of offering provisional ballots: The crazy quilt of voting rules and regulations that Americans face from state to state can trip up even the best-informed voters, and honest mistakes are common. By prosecuting Ms. Mason, just one of more than 44,000 Texans whose provisional ballot in 2016 was found to be ineligible, the state is saying that you attempt to participate in democracy at your own risk.

That risk is almost always higher for people of color. Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton, likes to brag about the 155 people his office has successfully prosecuted for election fraud in the last 16 years — an average of fewer than 10 per year. What he doesn’t say out loud is what The Houston Chronicle found in an analysis of the cases he has prosecuted: almost three-quarters involved Black or Latino defendants, and nearly half involved women of color, like Ms. Mason.

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