Crystal Mason, a 43-year-old mother of three, made headlines in March when she was sentenced to five years in prison for voting. Because of that conviction, on Aug. 30 a federal judge found her in violation of the terms of her supervised release and sentenced her to 10 months in prison, plus two years and two months of probation.
Mason says she didn’t know she was ineligible to vote when she cast a provisional ballot in Fort Worth, Texas, in the November 2016 presidential election. But she was on supervised release after a federal prison term for tax fraud, making her vote illegal. She found out three months later, when she was arrested for it.
“They tell you certain things like you can’t be around a felon, you can’t have a gun,” she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last year. “No one actually said, ‘Hey, you can’t vote this year.’”
The original case against Mason was brought by Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson in February 2017. But critics say it was not only unduly harsh—it was also hypocritical. Wilson, a Republican, has been far more lenient in handling an election-related forgery case involving a Republican justice of the peace, they point out. And she also committed an election-related impropriety of her own in 2016: asking her staff for personal contact information and then using it to solicit them for funds for her re-election.
Legal experts are mixed over whether that was a criminal offense, and a special prosecutor declined to pursue action against her. But Grant Hayden, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, said it’s unfair for Wilson to hold voters like Mason accountable for not knowing election rules and then claiming not to know rules herself. “Yeah, it looks like a double standard on its face,” Hayden told The Appeal. “And that’s a problem.”
A re-election fundraiser
In August 2016, Wilson was about halfway through her first four-year term serving as district attorney in Tarrant County, which covers Fort Worth. On Aug. 10, reporters for the Star-Telegram later discovered, she sent an email to her employees asking for their personal email addresses and cell phone numbers, and confirmation of their home addresses. Then in September, she sent an email inviting them to her Sept. 28 re-election fundraiser, the Star-Telegram reported. “Sharen would appreciate your support of $1000-$500-$250-$100,” the invitation read.
Section 39.02 of Texas law forbids public servants from using government property or personnel to “obtain a benefit.” So an elected official’s use of a government computer to request staff members’ private email addresses to solicit them for political donations could be a misdemeanor. Twenty-eight of Wilson’s staffers donated to her campaign, according to a campaign finance report obtained by the Lone Star Project, a political action committee.
In fall 2016, the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit launched a criminal investigation, according to the Star-Telegram. Since Wilson couldn’t investigate her own case, a judge assigned it to the DA in another county, Republican Maureen Shelton. But after reviewing the evidence, in February 2017 Shelton sent a letter informing the judge that she was dropping the case because of “insufficient evidence of criminal intent. … I have been assured that there are policies and procedures in place so there will be no issues in the future.”
Wilson’s office didn’t respond to questions about her own case or Mason’s. Instead, spokesperson Samantha Jordan pointed to her office’s “most recent comment,” which assistant DA Matt Smid made to the Star-Telegram on Aug. 30: “The DA’s office has said that we will not apologize for enforcing the laws of the State of Texas. It is against state law for a person on federal supervised release to vote in Texas. We believe it is not an ‘accidental vote’ when the voter drives herself to the polling place and votes after signing a warning against illegal voting and after being warned not to vote by her defense attorney. That is why the state judge found her guilty and the federal judge revoked her supervised release today.”
But the attorney warning happened years before the election, in November 2011, when Mason pleaded guilty in the tax fraud case, her attorney at that time, Warren St. John, told The Appeal.
Prison vs. probation
In her one-day trial in March, Mason herself challenged the logic of the prosecution’s case. She would never have cast a ballot had she known it was illegal since she had nothing to gain, she said in her testimony. The prosecution’s evidence that Mason knew what she was doing rested heavily on the testimony of a 16-year-old volunteer poll worker. He said he watched Mason read the section of the provisional ballot she filled out about not being eligible to vote while under supervision.
“What did you see?” a prosecutor asked him on the stand.
“Her finger watching [sic] each line,” the young poll worker responded, “making sure she read it all.”
A second poll worker—an experienced election judge—couldn’t say for certain whether Mason read that section.
And Texas law regarding what constitutes “supervision” under federal versus state law is confusing, says Alison Grinter, Mason’s current attorney. “Had she come to me beforehand [before the 2016 election] and said, ‘Alison, can I vote?’ I mean I’m board-certified in criminal law, and I’d have said ‘I don’t know,’” Grinter told The Appeal. In any case, Mason’s vote was never counted.
Mason’s case was the second time Wilson had come down hard on someone for an illegal vote. In 2016, she prosecuted 37-year-old green card holder Rosa Ortega for twice casting illegal ballots. Last February, Ortega was sentenced to eight years in prison, though, like Mason, she has also insisted throughout that she didn’t realize she couldn’t vote. Hers is the longest prison term in Texas history for an illegal ballot, according to records obtained by the Star-Telegram. Mason and Ortega are appealing their convictions.
The DA’s unsparing approach to prosecuting both Mason and Ortega contrasts with her handling of another election-related case. In April, Justice of the Peace Russ Casey pleaded guilty to forging signatures to get on a March 6 Republican primary ballot. For his crime, he got no prison time but is serving five years’ probation. “No one is above the law in Tarrant County,” Wilson told the Star-Telegram. In response to a question about why Mason and Ortega got long prison sentences for lesser crimes, Smid told the paper that it was because neither woman accepted a plea deal.
But St. John said Mason was offered 10 years’ probation—double what Casey got. When asked about that disparity, Wilson spokesperson Jordan responded, “We offered probation for this offense to [Mason,] a multiple felon with both state and federal convictions. There was no prior criminal history in the other case [Casey’s].”
Yet, Grinter explained that Mason couldn’t plead guilty because doing so would have violated the terms of her federal supervision.
Regardless of the plea deals offered, some experts say, Casey ultimately got off easier than either of the two women, which doesn’t seem fair. “If you’re looking at what is a bigger risk to democracy, insiders manipulating the rules is a much bigger threat than someone who voted while they’re not eligible to vote but will be eligible as soon as they complete the terms of their supervised release,” said Theodore Rave, associate law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
Sending a message
There’s a lot more at stake than unequal treatment of individual cases, according to advocates. Tarrant County votes Republican but not by much. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just nine points there, and Democrats are targeting it in their effort to flip the whole state.
The long jail terms send new voters the message that a ballot mistake could ruin their lives, explains Beth Stevens, a lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, and that’s an effective way to keep them from the polls. “Any attempt to quash someone who’s been a nonvoter in the past from becoming a voter benefits those currently in power,” she told The Appeal.
Ultimately, the only check on elected prosecutors is voters who care about whether cases are handled fairly, said Gerald Reamey, a law professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.
They will get to issue a verdict on Wilson in the election on Nov. 6. In 2014, she ran unopposed. This year, she’s facing a challenge from Albert John Roberts, one of her former assistant DAs.“I don’t see this as using our resources as the district attorney’s office or as taxpayers wisely,” Roberts said of the Mason and Ortega prosecutions. “Are we a safer community because they’re in prison? And the easy answer to that question is ‘No, we’re not.’”