Texas’ highest criminal court on Wednesday ordered a lower court to take another look at the controversial case against Crystal Mason, a Texas woman who was convicted of voting illegally during the 2016 election.
At the time Mason voted, she was on supervised release from prison after serving time on federal tax evasion charges.
Alison Grinter Allen, Mason’s attorney, has said Mason had no idea she couldn’t vote because she technically hadn’t finished her sentence. Mason wasn’t on the voter rolls at the time, so she voted using a provisional ballot — which eventually wasn’t counted.
But in 2018, Mason was convicted of illegal voting, which was a second-degree felony, and was sentenced to five years of confinement. She’s currently out on bond.
According to the ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, when a lower court upheld that conviction, it made a mistake by “failing to require proof that [Mason] had actual knowledge that it was a crime for her to vote while on supervised release.”
Tommy Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said in an interview that the court clarified that Texas law says the state “has to show that the person knew that they were ineligible to vote” when they cast a ballot.
“What this decision says is that innocent mistakes can’t be prosecuted,” he said.
The case now returns to a court of appeals, where it is directed to take up this case with this new guidance from the higher court.
Last year, Texas Republican lawmakers passed a controversial voting law that, among other things, cracked down on alleged voting crimes in the state. The law, known as Senate Bill 1, created new criminal penalties for people who assist voters in-person or voting by mail, and it beefed up penalties for existing voting crimes.
SB 1, however, also included language aimed at preventing another case like Mason’s.
One of the other reasons the high criminal court wanted another review of her case is because Texas lawmakers included a provision in the law that specifies a person “may not be convicted solely upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot affidavit … unless corroborated by other evidence that the person knowingly committed the offense.”
“The amendment clarifies that a provisional ballot affidavit alone is insufficient evidence that the person MASON ― knowingly committed the offense,” the court wrote. “Corroboration by other evidence is required for conviction.”
Voting rights advocates in the state had warned lawmakers that the legislation overall could ensnare people who make mistakes while voting. They say increased prosecutions aimed at voters could dissuade people from voting in Texas.
Voting groups also worry that further criminalizing voting will disproportionately affect communities of color. Mason, as an example, is a Black woman.
More than 70% of voter prosecutions conducted by the Texas attorney general’s Election Integrity Unity targeted Black and Latino voters, according to a study from the ACLU of Texas published in March 2021.