Crystal Mason. Source: Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram
In 2011, Crystal Mason, an Afro-American woman from Fort Worth, Texas, was charged and plead guilty to tax fraud and was sentenced to three years in federal prison. On 8 November 2016, while still on probation, Mason went to her local polling station to vote in the Clinton vs Trump presidential election. On her arrival, and to her surprise, Mason was informed that she was not on the electoral register and following the advice of a poll centre worker cast a ‘provisional ballot pending further checks‘. In March 2017, Mason was handcuffed and held in custody for a night as four months after the fact she discovered the reason for her absence on the register – in Texas, one of the states where ex-convicts can vote, it is a crime to vote while on probation – a fact Mason claims she was not made aware of. In March 2018, Mason was sentenced to five years in prison for her crime of voting. In August of this year, as a result of this conviction, she was also deemed to be in breach of the terms of her parole and sentenced to 10 months in federal prison. On Thursday, 27 September, Mason surrendered to authorities and was taken to federal prison, where she will remain until July 2019 and her 5-year sentence in state prison will commence. Numerous appeals have been rejected and if Mason fulfils this sentence, she will not be released until 2024. A prisoner for casting a provisional vote that was never counted.
While convictions for voter fraud are uncommon in Texas, Crystal Mason’s case is not isolated. Rosa Ortega, another woman of colour who had legally lived in the USA since infancy with permanent right to remain was prosecuted under similar circumstances. Her conviction was because despite her green card status, without citizenship legally she wasn’t eligible to vote. Having voted twice in 2012 and 2014 she was sentenced to two eight-year sentences running concurrently followed by deportation to her native Mexico, despite alleging she was unaware that she couldn’t vote.
Naivety could optimistically suggest that these two cases illustrate the lengths to which Texas, and indeed America, will go to to protect its democratic system, and of course this is important as voter fraud has the potential to pervert democracy. What is striking, and frankly terrifying, about these two cases is the severity to which the Texan justice system has prosecuted and arguably persecuted Mason and Ortega, for a crime which in both cases was feasibly an honest mistake and had no direct benefit to either individual.
To contextualise the severity of these sentences, they can be contrasted to that of Terri Lynn Rote, a white Iowan who was convicted for attempting to vote twice in the 2016 election. For this crime, which she knowingly committed, she has been sentenced two years’ probation and a $750 fine, and assuming she pays the fine, at the end of her probation period her record will be cleared. This disparity between sentences suggests that the severity of Mason and Ortega’s is not purely down to the brutality that voter fraud is dealt with, but to external factors too.
The inconsistency in sentences given by district attorney’s in Texas clarify that the difference in sentencing between Mason and Rote was not solely due to state policy either. In March of this year, Justice of the Peace Russ Cassey, a white conservative, pled guilty to faking signatures in order to gain a position on the election ballot for re-election to his existing role. Where it can be argued Mason had nothing to gain from her crime, Cassey was rigging an election, with the aim to keep his post with a salary of $125,911.76 a year. Where it can be argued Mason had no knowledge she was committing a crime, Cassey not only explicitly broke the law but accused his competitors, Lenny Lopez and Bill Brandt, for the crime he himself committed. And for this abuse of power the same district attorney sentenced Cassey to five years’ probation. Given the disparity in harshness of these sentences, between Mason, Ortega, Rote and Casey, it is clear there is institutional inequality in the American Justice system in relation to electoral fraud, which arguably on multiple levels breaches human rights.
The fact that Mason and Ortega couldn’t vote in the first place is in breach of Article 3 of the First Protocol: the right to free elections. A fundamental human right is that of free expression and in disenfranchising both women Texan law shows institutional disregard of this right. While Mason’s case is not isolated, it is an extreme enough to have caught the attention of numerous news outlets and begs the question to what purpose has Mason been an example? It is argued by many that the recent and brutal recrimination of those who commit electoral fraud, is an act of voter intimidation, in an attempt to alienate the electorate. And indeed, there is evidence it may be working, specifically in Fort Worth where, according to researchers at Portland State University, turnout is 6% on average and for those aged 18-34 turnout is just 1.5%.
Another alarming feature of these convictions and their corresponding felons is race, and the correlation of minority ethnicities and voter suppression. Race discrimination is in clear contradiction with the human rights and while this correlation does not necessarily imply causation, Mason’s lawyer Alison Grinter argues ‘Black people in Fort Worth hear about her case and they understand that they are not welcome in the voting booth‘. Grinter’s claim is not isolated or unfounded either, according to the NPR. In Georgia 53,000 voter registrations were blocked on the grounds the application was not a perfect match to an individual’s ID and has been dubbed ‘disenfranchisement by typo’, and 80% of those were minority ethnicities.
Crystal Mason is a victim of democracy in one of the most developed countries in the world. While her case is symptomatic of a fundamental breach of human rights on multiple levels it is easy to forget that Mason is a human being, who is as I write this in prison and separated from her children. I can only hope that her case is a catalyst for an international demand for change, and not just another symptom of a democracy failing those it is supposed to represent.