Woman’s Illegal Voting Conviction Overturned by Texas Court

Crystal Mason voted in the 2016 presidential election without having completed probation.
Woman’s Illegal Voting Conviction Overturned by Texas Court
Voters line up to cast their ballots in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 1, 2016. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber

The conviction of a woman who voted in the 2016 presidential election despite being on probation has been overturned by an appeals court.

Crystal Mason voted while on supervised release following a conviction for tax fraud. Texas law requires convicts to have “fully discharged” their sentence, “including any term of incarceration, parole, or supervision, or ... period of probation ordered by any court.”

Texas District Judge Ruben Gonzalez handed down a prison sentence for Ms. Mason after hearing she signed an affidavit that stated she had completed her sentence before voting.
However, the evidence in the case does not prove Ms. Mason knew it was illegal for her to vote, according to the new ruling from the Texas Second Court of Appeals.

A person can be prosecuted if he or she “votes or attempts to vote in an election in which the person knows the person is not eligible to vote,” according to state law.

“Under this statute, the state must prove not only that a person voted in an election while ineligible to do so but also that the person knew her circumstances made her ineligible to vote in that election,” Texas Court of Appeals Justice J. Wade Birdwell said.

Ms. Mason claimed that she did not read the affidavit she signed and was thus unaware she was attesting to having completed her sentence; that the government never informed her she couldn’t vote; and that, had she known, she would not have voted.

“In the end, the state’s primary evidence was that Mason read the words on the affidavit. But even if she had read them, they are not sufficient—even in the context of the rest of the evidence in this case—to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she actually knew that being on supervised release after having served her entire federal sentence of incarceration made her ineligible to vote by casting a provisional ballot when she did so,” Justice Birdwell said.

“Because we have determined that the evidence is insufficient to support Mason’s guilt, we reverse the trial court’s judgment and render a judgment of acquittal,” he added.

The ruling came even though Ms. Mason’s testimony diverged from several other people.

Poll worker Karl Dietrich, for instance, testified that he offered Ms. Mason a provisional ballot and the accompanying affidavit after not finding her name on the list of registered voters.

He said he thought Ms. Mason paused and read the language on the affidavit, which stated in part: “I am a registered voter in this political subdivision and in the precinct in which I’m attempting to vote and have not already voted in this election (either in person or by mail).

“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.”

Ms. Mason testified that she did not read the language and that she never saw Mr. Dietrich but was instead helped by a different person. Another worker backed up Mr. Dietrich’s account.

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

“I am overjoyed to see my faith rewarded today,” Ms. Mason said in a statement. “I was thrown into this fight for voting rights and will keep swinging to ensure no one else has to face what I’ve endured for over six years, a political ploy where minority voting rights are under attack. I’ve cried and prayed every night for over six years straight that I would remain a free black woman. I thank everyone whose dedication and support carried me through this time and look forward to celebrating this moment with my family and friends.”

Ms. Mason was represented by lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We are relieved for Ms. Mason, who has waited for too long with uncertainty about whether she would be imprisoned and separated from her family for five years simply for trying to do her civic duty,” added Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney for the group. “The harms of the criminal prosecution can never fully be undone, but this decision is vindication for Ms. Mason and a win for our democracy, which can only thrive when people can fearlessly engage in the civic process.”

The Texas Second Court of Appeals initially upheld Ms. Mason’s conviction, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals then found that the lower court “erred by failing to require proof that the Appellant had actual knowledge that it was a crime for her to vote while on supervised release” and remanded the case back with instructions to “evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence under the correct interpretation of the statute.”

Justice Michelle Slaughter dissented, writing that the law in question “is unambiguous” and that the evidence in the case “is sufficient.”