‘Overwhelmed in joy’: Texas court overturns woman’s voter fraud conviction

Rights advocates welcome ruling overturning Crystal Mason’s conviction as victory in ‘broader fight for voting rights’.

Protesters show support for voting rights during a rally in Austin, Texas, May 8, 2021 [File: Mikala Compton/Reuters]Published On 29 Mar 202429 Mar 2024

A woman in the United States is rejoicing after a Texas appeals court on Thursday overturned her voter fraud conviction in a case that advocates say highlights efforts to disenfranchise Black people and other voters of colour in the country.

An African American mother of three from Fort Worth, Texas, Crystal Mason had been sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to vote in the 2016 election in violation of state law.

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But the Second District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth ruled that Mason was unaware that a previous felony conviction – and ensuing probationary status – had left her ineligible to cast a ballot.

Appearing near tears at times, Mason said during a Friday news conference that it has been a long seven years since the voting charge.

“I’ve been out for six years on an appeal bond, one foot in one foot out, not knowing if I was going back to prison,” she told reporters.

“When I got the news … I was just overwhelmed in joy, it’s been a long journey,” Mason said. “I cried and hollered when I got the news.”

Prosecutors maintained that Mason read and signed an affidavit accompanying the provisional ballot that affirmed that she had “fully completed” her sentence for her felony conviction.

But Justice Wade Birdwell of the Second District Court of Appeals wrote in Thursday’s decision that having read these words on the affidavit did not prove Mason knowingly broke the law when she cast the provisional ballot.

“Even if she had read them, they are not sufficient … to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she actually knew that being on supervised release after having served her entire federal sentence of incarceration made her ineligible to vote by casting a provisional ballot,” the decision said.

Voting rights advocates hailed the reversal of Mason’s conviction as a major victory in one of the US states with the most restrictive voting laws.

Texas is among several Republican-controlled states that have enacted new limits on voting since the 2020 US elections, which saw President Joe Biden defeat Republican incumbent Donald Trump.

Trump has claimed that the vote was marred by widespread fraud; no evidence has been found to support his allegation.

“This ruling gives us hope not just for Ms. Mason, but for the broader fight for voting rights in Texas,” Christina Beeler, voting rights lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement on Thursday.

“Crystal Mason was unfairly targeted because of bad faith actors in this state who are determined to use every tool at their disposal to attempt to intimidate voters, especially Black and Brown voters, but that approach will not work here in Texas.”

Advocates have criticised the Texas voting restrictions as disproportionately impeding Black voters, like Mason, as well as Latino and other non-white voters who tend to vote for Democrats.

The Sentencing Project, which advocates for reducing punishment and expanding voting rights of felons nationwide, says Texas leads the nation by disenfranchising 450,000 citizens.

That amounts to 2.5 percent of the state’s voting-age population, and about two-thirds are Black or Latino voters.

In 2021, the state’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed a law imposing a range of voting restrictions, including new identification requirements to vote by mail.

The legislation also banned drive-through and 24-hour voting sites, curbed early voting, empowered partisan poll-watchers and limited who can assist voters requiring help because of disabilities or language barriers.

A federal district court judge in Texas granted a motion from the US Department of Justice and civil rights groups in November to block parts of the law requiring officials to reject mail-in ballots and ballot applications based on minor errors or omissions.

The judge found that those measures violated the US Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Meanwhile, on Friday morning, the chairman of Texas’s Legislative Black Caucus, Representative Ron Reynolds, said Mason’s case highlights “the systemic challenges facing marginalized communities in exercising their fundamental right to vote”.

“While her vindication is a step in the right direction, it highlights the urgent need for comprehensive electoral reform to ensure equitable access to the ballot box for all citizens,” Reynolds said in a statement shared on X.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies