Voting While on Probation, a Five-Year Mistake

By: Andy Ball

 

In 2017, Texas indicted Crystal Mason, a 43-year-old mother of two, on an illegal voting charge in Tarrant County for voting in the 2016 presidential election despite her protestations that she was unaware she was unable to do so and never would have voted had she known.[1] Last Thursday, March 29th, 2018, State District Judge Ruben Gonzalez found her guilty of the charge.[2]

Mason casted her ballot with the help of an election worker after she arrived at her polling place and was unable to find her name on the registered voter roll.[3] The election worker presented her with a provisional ballot, which allows a person to cast a vote as long as they certify they are eligible by signing an affidavit.[4] However, small print at the top asks the voter to certify that if they are a felon, they have fully completed their sentence, including supervision or parole of any kind.[5]  Understanding the consequences of voting is not always clear even with the help of election workers because some may see the seemingly mundane task as thorough and tedious .[6]

In 2012, U.S. District Judge John McBryde sentenced Mason to five years in federal prison and three years of supervised release for tax fraud.[7] After she voted, Mason received a letter stating that her vote did not count but did not explain why.[8] She did not think anything of it until a meeting with her supervision officer on February 16, 2017, where Tarrant County Sherriff’s deputies met and arrested her on an illegal-voting warrant.[9]

In order to register to vote in Texas, a person must be a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years old by Election Day, cannot be a convicted felon (unless the sentence has been completed, including parole or probation) and cannot have been declared mentally incapacitated by a court.[10]

Texas is one of many states that make it illegal for convicted felons to vote while in prison, on parole, or probation.[11] Some states like Illinois, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania only prohibit people in prison from voting.[12] While states like Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, and Iowa permanently prohibit all people with felony convictions from voting by making it a punishable offense.[13]

A patchwork of state felon disfranchisement laws, varying in severity from state to state, prevent approximately 5.85 million Americans with felony convictions from voting.[14] For individuals like Crystal Mason, sending her to jail for five years for mistakenly casting a ballot while on probation is not rehabilitation or just punishment—its draconian.[15] Punishment like this is unnecessary considering how rare in-person voter fraud is.[16] The treatment that Crystal Mason experienced by the Texas justice system should constitute cruel and unusual punishment because circumscribing her right to participate in our democracy is not proportional to her offense.[17]

Restoring voting rights to convicted felons not in prison and on parole or probation is the most uniform solution to felon disenfranchisement issues.[18]

 


[1] Meagan Flynn, Texas Woman Sentenced to 5 years In Prison for Voting While on Probation, The Wash. Post (March 30, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/30/texas-woman-sentenced-to-5-years-in-prison-for-voting-while-on-probation/?utm_term=.19e0fa2c36fa.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Anna M. Tinsley, Convicted Felon Indicted on Illegal Voting Charge in Tarrant County, Star-Telegram (March 1, 2017), http://www.star-telegram.com/news/politics-government/election/article135748503.html.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Felony Disenfranchisement Laws (Map), ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/issues/voting-rights/voter-restoration/felony-disenfranchisement-laws-map (last visited 4/7/2018).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] See id. (noting how varying felony voting laws disenfranchise countless Americans).

[16] Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth, Brennan Ctr. for Justice (January 31, 2017), https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/debunking-voter-fraud-myth.

[17] Amy Heath, Note, Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Denying Ex-Felons The Right to Vote After Serving Their Sentences, 25 Am. U. J. Gender L. & Pol’y, 327, 346-350 (2016).

[18] Id.