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Texas appeals court sides with Black woman fighting voting fraud conviction

Crystal Mason says an innocent misunderstanding of Texas election law led to her conviction and five-year prison sentence.

(CN) — A Black woman convicted in Texas of illegally voting and sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot that was not even counted can press her case she was wrongfully convicted, the state's highest criminal court ruled Wednesday.

For civil rights advocates and opponents of Texas’ restrictive voting laws, Crystal Mason, a mother of three, is Exhibit A of how efforts by the state’s Republican leaders to crack down on the vanishingly rare crime of voter fraud have fallen hardest on minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats.

Mason had recently served three years in federal prison for tax fraud and was on federal supervised release when, at the urging of her mother, she went to a polling place in Tarrant County on Nov. 8, 2016, to vote in the presidential election.

Election workers could not find her name on the voter rolls, so they let her cast a provisional ballot.

 In doing so, she signed an affidavit including an affirmation that if she was a felon she had completed all punishment, including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, probation, or she had been pardoned.

Six months later, Mason was arrested after a Tarrant County grand jury indicted her for voting in an election in which she knew she was not eligible.

During a one-day bench trial in March 2018, a probation supervisor testified no one from his office had warned Mason she could not vote while on federal supervised release.

Mason’s lawyers argued she did not read the advisory in the provisional ballot affidavit, the government never told her she could not vote and she would not have done so if she had known she was ineligible.

Nonetheless, Judge Ruben Gonzalez found her guilty and sentenced her to five years in prison.

She appealed to the Texas Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, but a three-judge panel affirmed her conviction, holding her unawareness about her ineligibility to vote “was irrelevant to her prosecution.” The panel determined prosecutors only needed to prove Mason voted while knowing she was on federal supervised release, not that she knew that made her ineligible.

Though the Texas Legislature’s Republican majority – with the passage of Senate Bill 1 along party lines – enacted strict voting rules last year critics say are meant to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters, they cited Mason’s case in an amendment that clarifies signing a provisional ballot affidavit alone is insufficient evidence the defendant knowingly illegally voted. To uphold such a conviction, other evidence must corroborate the person knew they could not lawfully vote.

Noting the amendment invalidates the Second Court of Appeals’ reasoning for affirming Mason’s conviction, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sided with Mason on Wednesday in an 8-1 order.

“The court below 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. We remand to that court to evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence under the correct interpretation of the statute,” Justice Jesse McClure wrote in a 25-page order.

The majority agreed with Mason’s attorneys that upholding her conviction conflicts with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' decision in DeLay v. State. In that case, the court affirmed the acquittal of former Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, based on its finding he had not knowingly violated the Texas Election Code.

He had been convicted of laundering political contributions from corporations.

Mason expressed optimism Wednesday that her conviction will eventually be vacated.

“I am pleased that the court acknowledged issues with my conviction, and am ready to defend myself against these cruel charges. My life has been upended for what was, at worst, an innocent misunderstanding of casting a provisional ballot that was never even counted. I have been called to this fight for voting rights and will continue to serve my community,” she said in a statement issued by her attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michelle Slaughter said she would have upheld Mason’s conviction, citing trial testimony of eyewitnesses who said they saw Mason read the provisional ballot affidavit’s advisory she could not vote while on supervised release before casting her ballot.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not respond to a request for comment on the order.

Since 2015, Black and Latino voters, most of them women, have accounted for 72% of Paxton’s voter fraud prosecutions, according to the ACLU.

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