A Texas appeal court has reversed the voting fraud conviction of Crystal Mason, a Black woman whose case grabbed headlines in 2018. Mason was convicted for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was ineligible under state law. For her part, Mason always maintained that she did not know she could not legally vote, but prosecutors argued that she was ineligible because she was still under supervised release after serving a prison sentence for tax fraud.

The basic facts of Mason’s case are not in dispute. In 2016, she drove to the church where she had previously voted, and poll workers there told her that her name was not on the rolls. A worker showed her how to cast a provisional ballot, which would only be counted if her identification checked out. When Mason left, she had no idea that her provisional ballot would spark a seven-year legal battle.

A few months after the election, Mason was arrested and charged with illegal voting, a felony punishable by up to twenty years in prison. Mason was convicted after a one-day trial and given a five-year prison sentence. Prosecutors argued that she had read a form at the polling station that should have made it clear that she was ineligible. On the other hand, Mason’s defense was that she simply did not know she was ineligible because she had been released from prison on her federal charges, and nobody involved with her supervise release had told her that she could not legally vote.

Punishment Sparked Outrage

Despite her previous criminal record, the five-year prison sentence drew sharp criticism. Many noted that Mason’s provisional ballot was not even counted and had no effect on the election.

Mason’s story led to calls for reform. Not only was she facing five years for the voting charge, but federal authorities also imprisoned her for another ten months because of the arrest, which they viewed as a violation of the terms of her supervised release.

A year after her conviction, Mason’s case had achieved enough notoriety that she was called “the face of voter suppression in America,” as her case was used to highlight the way that voter identification laws backed by Republicans have a disproportionate impact on voters from minority communities.

Then-President Trump falsely claimed that hundreds of thousands of illegal votes had been cast in the 2016 election, and in response, some states enacted strict voter ID laws, purged voter rolls, or proposed limits on early voting or voting with absentee ballots. Despite the constant tooth-gnashing and allegations about widespread voter fraud, Mason was one of the very few people actually prosecuted for attempting to cast a vote. For example, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, has documented that a conviction for election fraud has occurred in 0.000096% of all ballots cast in Texas since 2005.

To complicate the issue, a federal voting reform act passed in 2002 created the framework for the provisional ballot system used by Mason. The intent of that law was to help voters participate in elections when they show up to vote but are not on the list of registered voters.

Texas legislators from both parties seemingly took heed of Mason’s case when they passed a massive voting reform bill in 2021. The Republican-led legislature enacted several restrictions on polling places and voting methods, but they also reduced the punishment for crimes like Mason’s by re-categorizing illegal voting as a Class A misdemeanor. Another change, specifically made retroactively applicable, stated that the submission of a provisional ballot alone is not sufficient evidence that a person knowingly committed the offense.

That year, the Texas House also issued a formal resolution about the voting law stating, “a person should not be criminally incarcerated for making an innocent mistake.”

Mens Rea Element of the Crime Challenged in Appeal, Clarified by Legislature

From the beginning of her saga, Mason has maintained that she was unaware that she was not eligible to vote in 2016 when she cast the provisional ballot. Her appeal claimed that she lacked the mens rea, or mental culpability, necessary for conviction.

Prosecutors argued this point vigorously, relying on contextual evidence to convince the jury that Mason must have known about her ineligibility. They point to an affidavit that accompanied Mason’s provisional ballot, which she signed. The affidavit included language stating, “If a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.”

Mason argued that when she cast her provisional ballot, she did not know that her federal release did not fit that category, so she appealed her conviction on that basis. Texas’ Second Circuit Court of Appeals originally upheld the conviction, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest state court for criminal matters) ordered it to be reevaluated in 2022.

That court ruled that Mason could not be convicted without evidence that she actually knew it was a crime for her to vote at the time she submitted her provisional ballot, and it cited the legislative changes and resolution from 2021 in support of its ruling. Not finding that evidence in the record, the Second Circuit reversed Mason’s conviction.

The Long Saga is Still Not Over for Mason as the Next Election Looms

Though Mason’s conviction has been overturned, her court battle is not quite over. Prosecutors have appealed the reversal decision to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

In Texas, voting laws are always changing. In 2023, with another presidential election on the horizon, Republican lawmakers restored the felony penalties for illegal voting, making it possible that another person might suffer the same consequences as Mason. Several Republican lawmakers who supported the 2021 changes have since claimed that lowering the penalties for illegal voting was a mistake.

In recent election years, losing candidates have been pointing to voter fraud when making excuses for poor performance at the polls. This year will likely prove no different. Courts across the country will face the questions of how strictly they construe the knowledge elements of voting offenses and what penalties are appropriate for the crime in light of the consequences. The ensuing legal battles can last through several election cycles.

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